Sow stalls are a shocking scandal. To my mind, as they’re an animal welfare issue they’re much more offensive than any meat mislabelling problem, and yet few people even know what sow stalls are. So let’s start by quoting Wikipedia:
A gestation crate, also known as a sow stall, is a metal enclosure used in intensive pig farming, in which a female breeding pig (sow) may be kept during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life. The enclosures measure 6.6 ft x 2.0 ft (2 m x 60 cm) and house sows that weigh up to 600 lbs (270 kg).
The floors of the crates are made of concrete, and are slatted to allow waste to be collected below. As the sows outgrow the crates, they must sleep on their chests, unable to turn around. A few days before giving birth, they are moved to farrowing crates, where they are able to lie down to nurse while being held apart from their piglets.
Pork producers argue that they are needed because sows who are housed together will fight. Animal advocates regard their use as one of the most inhumane features of intensive animal agriculture.
I know a bit about pigs. We keep them every now and then, originally as I was keen to show the children where meat came from. I was then shocked at the way these intelligent and sociable animals could be treated when farmed commercially. I’ll spare you the pictures of the sow stalls and show you one of our Large Blacks, which are among the most endearing and easy tempered animals I’ve ever come across.
The UK banned sow stalls in 1999, with the support of retailers and processors. It amazed me that we continued to cheerfully import pork and bacon from countries that hadn’t. As with the horsemeat issue, cost, of course, was the reason why. Since 2002 the UK has imported more and more pig meat, from countries where sow stalls were still used. Their pig meat was cheaper, of course. This was despite the EU* passing legislation in 2001 requiring other member States to do the same.
Twelve years later there are still 17 EU States flouting the ban on sow stalls. Portugal is only 58% compliant and France 72%, for example. Even Denmark, one of the biggest importers of pig meat into the UK, is only 94% compliant.
The National Pig Association launched a Wall of Fame (and Shame), on which it carries the names of UK food retailers and processors who have signed up to buying their pig meat from compliant sources. How many retailers have currently signed up to sourcing all their meat products this way? Two.
Let’s charitably interpret this as another symptom of the difficulty in unpicking the wretchedly complicated supply chains in the food industry – the list has only been live for a month. It’s a story worth following, though. How long will it take the consumer to understand that ethically produced food costs more?
*To my mind, without proper labelling best not to eat pork or bacon at all if you’re in the U.S., where most producers still use sow stalls.