SOW HOUSING is the central issue behind the new advertising campaign from BPEX, which claims that only one-third of the pigmeat imported into the UK comes from sows that are reared in loose housing.

But while stall-based systems are widespread on the Continent, and will only become illegal in 2013, most of the big suppliers to the UK have also developed supply lines that conform to UK standards.

These are for the benefit of supermarkets, rather than discounters and caterers, which are less demanding, and the Dutch claim that they produce more UK standard pigmeat than is actually demanded.

About 45% of Dutch sows are in group-based systems and this will become 100% from 2008 when new welfare laws are introduced. Only about half of these are on specific UK contracts, and demand for this pigmeat is static, says Dutch Meat Board managing director Robert Smith.

LOOSE HOUSING

Denmark, too, has a high proportion of its herd in loose housing – about 60%, says Danish Meat and Bacon Council marketing director John Howard.

But under Danish law even loose-housed sows are allowed to spend a period in stalls. This is for the four weeks after they have been weaned and then served.

The rationale is that returning sows – especially gilts – to a group at this stage can lead to bullying and fighting.

“Our research has shown that it is more welfare-friendly to keep them isolated for a period after service,” says Mr Howard.

The Danes have also successfully lobbied for this provision to be built into EU law when group housing is introduced EU-wide in 2013.

SUPERMARKET CONTRACTS

Even though over half of Dan- ish sows are group housed, only about 13% of the herd is on UK supermarket contracts, which do not allow any confinement of sows post-weaning.

Mr Howard estimates that one-third of the herd would have to be on UK supermarket contracts if all exports to the UK were to be from totally stall-free systems.