Sow stalls in Australia

I don’t think most Australians have any particularly awareness of the conditions for livestock animals in Australia. We hear occasional stories from overseas and can, of course, read books such as Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma to get even more of an idea. We know that chickens lead an awful life in battery farms, but I imagine many people think “barn laid” and many other opaque terms indicate markedly better welfare for the chickens. Scepticism is, justifiably, growing.

But what of the cattle and pigs? The Guardian (one of very few traditional newspaper to have nurtured an intelligent food section into the digital age) had an article, The price of bacon, on January 6th describing the conditions of pigs in some European pig farms. The blurb for the article summarises the unpleasant content:

Pigs kept on slatted, concrete floors; pregnant sows in cages so small they can’t move; piglets castrated without pain relief; tails routinely docked to prevent animals attacking each other. This is the truth behind the European pig industry – and so behind most of the pork we eat.

It piqued my curiosity regarding the situation in Australia. It turns out, for instance, that sow stalls are in use here, and not only is there an RSPCA campaign against their use, but there’s also one of those de rigueur marketing propaganda sites,, to explain why Australia should still use them. I love Issue Spin 101 paragraphs like

While several countries have moved to ban sow stalls or restrict their use, all Australians would agree that this country should make its own independent assessment based on sound scientific research, which meets our unique environment, cultural and geographical situation. (Link)

The site is completely silent about its authorship or affiliation, but a whois search reveals the owner as Australian Pork Limited. No surprise.

Now let’s just see how The Guardian describes sowstalls:

A sow stall is a narrow metal cage, on a bare concrete and slatted floor, in which pregnant sows spend all three months, three weeks and three days of their gestation. They can move a few inches back and forwards, but not turn around. Lying down and getting up is difficult, too.

I’m not particularly sentimental about animals which we eat, but I do get grumpy when people use weasel words to justify the mistreatment of those animals. I understand the economic imperatives of farming and food production. I know that there must be compromises where vast numbers of humans need food. I don’t think the final cents-per-unit should justify this sort of treatment.

I wonder if there are readers in Australia with close-hand knowledge of the treatment of food/farm animals in Australia? Is it generally better than some of the worst aspects of European or USAmerican farming described in books and the media?

16 thoughts on “Sow stalls in Australia”

  1. Hi Duncan, you’ll find a great deal of information at the Australian Free Range Pork Producer’s page, including more criticism of the sowstall site’s comments about sow stalls and farrowing crates.

    They also explain terms – eg “bred free range” means the parents of the animal you’re eating were free range, but the beast itself was raised industrially.

    If there isn’t a producer listed near you, you can email them for the closest members. That’s how I found our pork peole (Mountain Creek Farm – sensational heritage breed meat). We don’t eat supermarket pork anymore – can’t face it for a range of reasons, including taste.

    Pork production is a tremendously vexed issue, and the Pork Powers that be are media savvy and have very deep pockets.

    Apologies for the long comment, but I feel very strongly about these issues. Thank you for raising the subject.

  2. Hi Duncan,
    In answering your querie it is my understanding that commercial piggeries in this country operate with similar methods as they do the world over.
    perhaps this is why there seems to be a wave of people who are going back to the ‘smallholder’ ways of animal husbandry & perticularly with pigs.
    Producing rare breed pigs seems to be the new black with everyone keen to then value add by making sausages, assorted salumi & the holy grail, prosciutto or jamon.
    Wessex Saddleback & Berkshires are the two most prominent breeds that have been bred for this purpose & it is not too sensationist to suggest that there is more than a hint of cult like devotion from its disciples.
    Curiously afew years ago, Epicure did a taste comparison with a few of the usual suspect chefs & journo’s on the merits of the rare breed pigs versus the more prosaic breeds like large White & Landrace(which are i think the most common commercial breeds favoured)
    And the verdict?
    My memory recalls the panel favouring the commercial breeds!
    For more info, there quite an interesting food doco show about a bloke called Jimmy Doherty in England who set up a small piggery & farm gate shop. It deals head on with these issues & the reasons why he’s chosen to do things his way.

    PS Is it me or has Epicure a new policy that in order to be a contributing food journalist you must have a surname from middle Europe? Dubecki, Coslovich, Velik. Its like the conspiracy theory that you had to be of Dutch decent to part of Young Talent team LOL!
    My toungue IS in my cheek, dont panic anyone!

  3. Steve’s got me picked, I’m a total WS fangrrl. Mind you I used to be a Berkshire fangrrl until those producers (Tallabung) sold and the quality deteriorated.

    I would happily give the commercial breeds a taste test if I was satisfied they were humanely raised. I am very suss of them, in part because I bought what I thought was a ham from the supermarket to find it was pig meat reconstituted onto a bone – whether a pig’s or not I don’t know. We couldn’t finish it.

    I googled that Epicure article Steve mentioned, and he’s right that the commercial pork was preferred over Wessex Saddleback. However the WS producer had been feeding their beast with a mix including fish and linseed oil which gave the meat an unpleasant flavour. They conclude: It is, however, an example that breed alone does not dictate final flavour. It is a combination of breed, feed, husbandry, butchery and cooking that determines the final result.

  4. I’ll go out on a limb here & say that I have always agreed with Zoe’s premise.
    Not breed first but the way in which whatever breed is bought up for table has the most impact. Think about it & its quite logical.
    If one were to make a vinous comparison you could argue convincingly that pinot in the Yarra valley grows better than in the Barossa. You could also suggest that pigs given a better life all round will result in better meat no mater what the breed.
    Of course as skill grows one could define the best breeds for a particular region over another but are we seriously at that juncture yet? I dont think so, with this preocupation with breeds alone.
    My rather jaded view is that we latch onto whatever might sound deleriously like archaic animal husbandry in old world countries to sort of fast track our own understanding of its importance & at the same time hose down our aparent impotency in the scheme of worldly foodie events.

  5. I can understand the jaded view, Steve, but check the industrial farming photos. I’d pay to a lot to have the piggies avoid that.

  6. Me too Zoe, in fact I have for a while now.
    However I am just pointing out the fact that you & I are in a very distinct minority at present & until prices come down for quality, free range, organic or even bio dynamic pork it will remain so for most shoppers.
    Take example: 2 pork cutlets(rib eys’s) in the two supermarket chains which are usually more expensive than endependent butchers cost around 5 to 6.50 per serve or around 2.75 per point, excellent value as far as the consumer is concerned, in fact making it by far the cheapest meat per kg around, on parr with chook.
    What makes it a hard sell I believe is firstly the stigma that it is fatty & secondly that it is a dirty meat.
    Ironically, the fatty issue has been dealt with for years as commercial pork breeds have been bred to reduce the amount of fat to the point that these breeds would be almost unrecognisable to a generation prior to us.
    Secondly, the meat is only as dirty as we let it become in our quest to maximise space, time & efficiency in rearing it to table. Pigs are naturally great debasers of their habitat, usually always turning a green swatch to mud in moments so this view is not uncommon but it dosn’t equate the meat to be dirty per se.
    I’m all for a radical change in the way all beasties are reared to table but everyone remember that not all farmers who find themselves on the outer of the public sentiment are always guilty of cruelty or negligence toward their flock just because they dont embrace the zeitgeist of the newly enlightened who have tradionally remained breezily oblivious to the plight of their bacon until it might have become fashionable to become so.

  7. Well, I was more than happy to leave this to Steve and Zoe! Great commentary! Now what about general treatment of food livestock (ie, beyond the pigs) in Australia…

  8. This is a great post to get us thinking about and discussing these issues of animal welfare.

    I used to think that all cows in Australia lived outside eating grass. I’ve been horrified to find out that we do have feedlots here. Angela Crocombe claimed last week that up to 60% of our beef spends at least 50 days in feedlots.

    On the pigs issue I think it’s a bit unfair to say that free range breeds are selected for a fashionable heritage name. Outdoor pigs have to have dark skins and this plays a role in the prominence of heritage breeds for free range pork.

  9. In NZ I always bought pork that had an RSPCA seal of approval. I haven’t found anything similar here when I’ve queried where the pork is from in butchers and supermarkets. So we haven’t eaten pork since moving to Australia.

  10. Sorry Arwen, I ddidn’t mean to say that these pigs are chosen for their fashionable names only that it has become fashionable to grow, sell & shop for them, just a wisp of cynicism on my behalf.
    Curiously, talk to most butchers of an older generation & they will consistantly tell you that most of the rare breeds have way too much fat for the consumers tastes & they have learned this over the years & this is why pork is bred so lean these days.

  11. Yeah, Steve, but then they don’t buy the leaner pork because it’s too bloody dry – leading to the situation where fat has been bred out of pigs and then “moisture” injected in, and this used to market the meat as “premium” by giant industrial producers (more in the second link in my comment up there, including chat with local butcher in posh area selling this WORLD GONE MAD pork).

  12. Hi Zoe,yes I agree.
    Not being a spokeperson for the maladie du porc that we find ourselves in I can only agree with your sentiment & add that there must be a lot of contradictory info out there that msut ne confusing.
    My position is that as a consumer, dont get hoodwinked by the marketing leverage that denoting a single breed might attract.
    It’s more about then WAY its reared & the way its value added thats important to me.
    Plenty of wannabe’s produce average product from either a premium pig or a pig with sterling provenance, just use your discretion is all I’m saying.

  13. Sorry, but I have nothing to offer on the topic of the treatment of livestock in Australia v the rest of the World. But I do think we tend to bury our heads in the sand about the treatment of our livestock.

    People are aware of cruelty to animals in general but I don’t think they associate it with what ends up on their dinner plates.

    I first became really aware of cruelty to our livestock from information given out at a farmer’s market in Sydney but haven’t seen anything like it here in Sydney. Might be an idea to get something started?

  14. Interestingly, I rarely buy pork, but have had cause to twice in the last month, not having bought any for about two years. I hadn’t realised how hard it is to get prime cuts and fillet, other than supermarket overpriced, wet garbage. My local non-gourmet butcher had rolled roasts, chops and mince. That was it. Thank god for Melbourne’s markets!

  15. This week I saw Jamie Oliver’s program on Foxtel called “Save Our Bacon”. While the EU is due to ban sow stalls in 2013, Britain has already got rid of them and the ethical meat movement seems to be going full steam there. After all a pig is supposed to be more intelligent than a dog – imagine the outcry if dogs were kept like this. There is a movement to ban castration or ensure it is done under anaesthetic – the fact is pigs are killed at 6 months old – too young for the ‘boar taint’ to have occurred in male pig meat but European consumers eg.the Germans apparently won’t accept uncastrated pig meat as old habits die hard. I think Australia should be moving towards the type of farming where free-range or barn-kept pigs have straw etc to carry out natural behaviours and root around. I bet the meat tastes better and I would start to eat pork again – I stopped when I found out what it involved. Consumer pressure can make a difference – check where your meat comes from. Imagine spending your life in a sow stall or farrowing crate – 5 years of torture and boredom. The piglets are kept on concrete or slats where they have nothing to do – in Britain they must be given toys to amuse themselves and this cuts out aggression between bored frustrated pigs. Apparently pigs kept so unnaturally show signs of clinical depression. Wouldn’t we all?

  16. I worked with pigs in Denmark between 1995 and 2002 including with pregnant sows in individual sow stalls (now banned in Denmark), tied with collars (now banned in Denmark), in large groups on deep litter, free range sows, conventional piglets or grower pigs in groups of 20 – 60 on fully drained floors (now banned in Denmark), partly drained floors with under-roof sleeping areas, similar systems with some straw used or toys for behavioural management, and large groups of piglets or grower pigs on deep litter.

    All systems have their advantages and disadvantages, but it seems clear to me that:

    – Straw lining is vital to pig welfare
    – Toys can help were straw is not an option. Just a handful of straw per group of pigs per day can also improve animal welfare in systems that can’t cope with straw lining (like drained floors)
    – Pigs thrive best in small groups < 20 pigs
    – Very large groups (300-400 pigs) on deep litter can work but don't work automatically, and pen design is very important. It needs to offer escape & hide opportunities so weak pigs can avoid bullies
    – Pig's animal welfare is in top in outdoor systems when well managed. However, it can be hard to manage, and an appropriate soil type is vital, to be able to drive the machinery and also to prevent pollution
    – Individual stalls for pregnant sows are terrible for animal welfare. Sows in individual stalls tend to be sour, stressed, easy to hysterical reactions and develop repetitive, meaningless habits
    – Fully drained floors (typically used for grower/finisher pigs) tend to generate animal welfare issues. The pigs can't walk properly on them, straw and toys are inhibited because the manure system is too sensitive, and there tend to be problems with the indoor climate (bad air, draught) and behavioural issues (tail biting, bullying)

    I don't know about the rest of Europe, but Denmark has banned the 'bad' production systems like individual sow stalls for pregnant sows and fully drained floors for grower pigs. Individual farrowing crates are still used, but that is for good reasons, for a brief time only, and I haven't heard of a viable alternative that can protect newborn piglets.

    As far as I know individual sow stalls for pregnant sows are still legal in Australia. So buy Danish pork instead of Australian pork:-)

    However, buy Australian beef and lamb! Australian grass-fed livestock probably has the best living conditions in the world.

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