Supermarket backs Freedom pens

A new Freedom Pen farrowing system, aimed at improving welfare and with the potential to replace conventional crates, is being trialled on a farm near Driffield in East Yorkshire.

Pockthorpe Farm is run by David Morgan, his wife, Sue and their daughters, Katie and Vicky. The farm includes a 1,500-sow unit, with finished pigs produced under the RSPCA’s Freedom Food (FF) standards and sold to Sainsbury’s supermarket.

Pockthorpe has been chosen as one of the retailer’s “concept” farms, which have been launched to test new ideas aimed at combining sustainability and improved welfare.

The Morgans received support from the supermarket with development of the Freedom Pens, which are also being monitored by the RSPCA. Installed in a new, 72-place farrowing building, the first batch of sows entered the system on 1 August this year.

This move by Sainsbury’s comes at a time when objections are being raised about Midland Pig Producers’ plans to build a new, 2,500-pig “mega-farm” at Foston in Derbyshire. Some critics have pointed to the risk of groundwater pollution on the site, while others believe that “super size” systems may damage the public’s perception of UK production methods.

Sainsbury’s spokesperson Nathalie Smith said the supermarket was not concerned about pig numbers when it came to selecting suppliers.

“It’s not about the size of the farm,” she stressed. “Good management and stock skills are the most important elements. The debate about large-scale farming is not simple; bigger farms may have more money to invest in animal welfare, compared with smaller units. We are already fully supplied with pigmeat, and I cannot say what might happen if we experienced a shortfall.”

Asked whether producers who adopted the Freedom Pen design could expect a premium for their meat, Miss Smith indicated that the prospect was unlikely.

“Our products are tiered based on eating quality; welfare improvements do not necessarily command a premium, as customers take it for granted that Sainsbury’s meat is produced to a high standard. However, we want to give farmers a fair price. Units need to be commercially viable, so any additional costs will be taken into account.”

RSPCA FF agricultural manager Bob Waller commented that 98% of outdoor sows in the UK were already producing to the Freedom Food standard, so improving the welfare of housed pigs was the next logical step to take.

“There is not enough land available for all pig producers to switch to outdoor systems. This trial looks promising, but we need more time for a thorough assessment,” he said.