EARLIER THIS year, the British Pig Executive (BPEX) launched a new advertising campaign and quality assurance logo, designed to make British pigmeat stand out from the competition.

The ads were placed in the national press, and depicted two succulent joints of roast pork under the banner “They may look the same, pity they weren”t treated the same”.

The small print went on to explain that not all imported pigmeat measures up to British standards. In fact, two-thirds of the pork and bacon coming in from overseas will have come from farms that operate systems that would be illegal in the UK.

The main reason for this is that sow stalls are still widely used on the Continent, but have been unilaterally banned in the UK since 1999. Tethers are due to be banned under EU law next year, but have more or less disappeared already throughout Europe.

BPEX analysis shows that, of the 340,700t of pigmeat imported in the first half of 2004, just 35% would have come from stall-free systems (see table below). “That”s a generous estimate,” says BPEX chief executive Mick Sloyan, the man behind the numbers. “We built a lot of leeway into our estimates.”

But he is quick to claim that it is not an anti-import campaign. “The new quality logo accompanying the adverts is available to any supplier from any country, so long as they conform fully to our standards.”

Mr Sloyan insists that the campaign is responding to consumer demand. “Consumers have told us they want imported pigmeat to meet our standards. There is a lack of understanding about how pigmeat is produced, so this is about increasing customer knowledge, about identifying produce that meets UK standards, whether it be British or imported.”

But the campaign has provoked an angry response from other key suppliers to the UK market, in particular the Dutch and the Danes.

They do not dispute the BPEX figures, but argue that where there is a demand for stall and tether-free pigmeat, they provide it from farms with UK-specific contracts. They also claim that sow housing is just one small part of overall pig welfare and there are other areas where they have an advantage over UK producers.

So exactly how are pigs reared in these different countries?

One area where the Dutch can claim to achieve higher standards is in weaner and finisher space allowances. Under EU law, piglets less than 10kg, for example, are meant to have at least 0.15m sq each, while those between 55kg and 85kg should have 0.55m sq each (see table left).

 This is the basic standard applied in the UK and most other EU member states. But in Holland these areas stand at 0.4m sq and 0.8m sq, respectively, and weaners and finishers have more room to move around in across all weight ranges.

Unlike in the UK, Dutch law also requires solid as well as slatted floor areas in finishing pens, to separate dunging from feeding/resting areas in new buildings, and similar requirements exist in Denmark.

The Danes also claim a big welfare advantage in their finishing units, where all new buildings now have to include showers for pigs over 20kg.

 “Heat stress is the worst thing that can happen to a pig, as they are not able to sweat,” says quality assurance manager for the Danish Bacon and Meat Council, Henrik Lauritsen.

“Our research shows that, outdoors, pigs start to wallow as soon as the temperature reaches 15C. Placing showers over the slatted part of the pen encourages them to dung in the right area, boosts welfare and also improves efficiency.”

CASTRATION

The next big issue is castration. In the UK castration is still technically allowed, except under quality assurance schemes. But in practice it has been all but abandoned. The fact that about one-third of piglets are born outdoors is one practical reason for this. The other factor is that slaughter weights are generally lower in the UK, so boar taint is less of an issue.

But castration is still routinely carried out on most farms on the Continent, including some of those with specific contracts to supply UK supermarkets.

“Our producers would like not to have to castrate, but for some of our markets, in particular Germany, it”s a requirement, as customers will not accept meat from entire males,” says Mr Lauritsen. “Last year we tightened our legislation, so castration has to be done in the first week after birth if no anaesthetic is used. But as carcasses are split up for different outlets, it”s not practical to stop castration altogether.”

Mr Lauritsen recalls that the Danes actually invested 20m in the early 1990s to develop systems that eliminated the need for castration, but the markets would not accept it.

The Dutch, too, are keen to move away from castration. A recent proposal from a group of farmers, vets and welfare lobbyists calls for an end to castration from 2006. “A combination of breeding measures and slaughter line tests will make castration superfluous in the future,” they say.

The Dutch do already offer non-castrated supply lines to UK buyers, but Dutch Meat Board managing director Robert Smith reports “flexibility” in the UK marketplace on this, including at retail level.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL

Another area of difference is that of environmental control. To some extent this is a function of the greater intensity of production in Holland and Denmark. But the effect is to raise costs for producers in those countries.

In Denmark, producers have to observe a maximum level of nitrate application of 140kg/ha compared with a 170kg/ha in other member states. Danish pig farmers must also have at least nine months” slurry storage capacity.

A 2003 report from Wageningen University comparing Dutch and UK production systems also points out that Dutch farmers are confronted with many more planning restrictions that in the UK. “And regarding air pollution, no legislation is in force in the UK, while Dutch farmers have to comply with strict legislation on ammonia emissions, causing increased investment costs at farm level,” it adds.

But generally the report concludes that differences between the two countries are relatively minor. “Of far greater significance is that there are many areas of compatibility,” it says.

This is echoed by Mr Smith. Like many players with a long involvement in the UK market, he is concerned that by questioning the “illegality” of imported pigmeat, the BPEX campaign could turn consumers off all pigmeat.

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk