The British pig industry | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

The British pig industry

In 2014, around 4.9 million pigs were housed on pig farms in Britain at any one time, including 349,000 sows in pig or breeding sows (7).
Comparing figures from 2007 (1.45 million tonnes) and 2014 (1.3 million tonnes), pig consumption is down in the UK by 10 per cent, or 150,000 tonnes (8). The average consumption per person has dropped from 23.9 in 2007 to 20.9 kg in 2014 per year (8). Whilst consumption of pig meat (total domestic usage) increased in 2014, it remains much lower than ten years ago - indicating a long term decline.

Brits are annually eating 3 kg less pig meat a year than they were in 2007. This is due to the undercover investigations by organisations such as Viva!, health concerns over red and processed meat, as well as environmental concerns (9, 10, 11).

In 2014, approximately 10 million pigs were slaughtered in the UK (7). An average of approximately 200,000 pigs were killed per week in January 2016, and 86,000 tonnes of pig meat produced in January 2016 (12). In 2014, the value of pig meat was at £1.27 billion in the UK (7).

The number of pig holding units in Britain during 2014 was 11,300 and there were 6,000 breeding sow units (13). In 2014, there were 115 abattoirs slaughtering pigs (14).

The average large-scale intensive pig farm in Britain houses around 500-900 breeding sows and the average pig herd size for all farms in the UK is around 75 breeding sows (15). The number of sows in the average British herd has been in decline since 1999 following the introduction of a ban on sow stalls. Increasingly however, there is a risk of huge pig factory farms being built in the UK.

At least half of the world’s pig meat is produced from intensive systems (16) and today, more than 90 per cent of piglets in Britain are factory farmed – a term that describes modern farming methods because as many animals as possible are crammed together in the smallest possible space. In fact, 98 per cent of UK pigs are fattened (finished) in sheds (15). 93 per cent of growing pigs and 60 per cent of mother pigs in the UK are kept indoors (15).

Feeding, watering and dung clearing are often performed automatically, and the philosophy of mass production is what lies behind it all. The aim of factory farming is to produce as much meat as possible at the lowest possible cost.

Whilst sow stalls and tethers were banned in Britain from 1999, the government advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council state that the farrowing crate is used for around 60 per cent of all 350,000 (8) to 400,000 (16) British sows. It is a small metal cage in which sows can be imprisoned for up to five weeks, and it is very similar to the sow stall. A sow is placed in the crate one week before she is due to give birth and kept there until her piglets are weaned at 28 days.

Sow stalls (where pigs were incarcerated throughout their pregnancy), pictured here, were banned in Britain in 1999...

...however, farrowing crates are still widely used, pictured here by Viva! investigators on a farm in 2016. 60 per cent of all 350,000 to 400,000 sows in Britain are kept in these crates to give birth until their piglets are taken

Sow stall

Prior to the middle of the 20th century, pig farmers on British farms took a traditional approach with small breeding populations, extensively housed and often fed at least in part on waste food. The 1960s saw a revolution in pig keeping with populations increasing on individual farms, tighter management control of breeding and feeding, greater use of specialist compound diets and an overall intensification. Herds started to be housed wholly indoors (16).

Today, almost all the piglets from outdoor sows are reared intensively indoors, regardless of whether they were born outside. In fact, only 1 to 1.5 per cent of piglets born outdoors who go on to be killed for meat spend their entire lives outside as they are moved into indoor units after weaning (15, 17). The vast majority of pigs, therefore, in Britain are kept indoors for most of their lives.

At least 35 per cent of pigs reared for meat in Britain are housed in utterly barren systems without any straw bedding (15) – they are housed in barren, slatted pens with no privacy or reprieve from other pigs. Slatted accommodation, due to the system of manure (slurry) removal, does not facilitate the use of straw or other manipulable materials. Some enrichment is required by UK law – though this can only be a football or hanging chain. A welfare insult for these highly intelligent animals.

Pig pen

Pigs in the UK are overwhelmingly housed in barren, slatted pens with no means of escape © Viva!

The UK exports pig meat as fresh or frozen meat, bacon, sausages, processed hams, shoulders and pieces, and live pigs (14, 18). The largest importer of frozen pig meat from the UK is China (19). In 2012, it was reported in the media that Chinese farmers and food companies placed orders for 2,000 British pigs to breed with their domestic animals and farmers estimated that there is enough demand from China to export up to £20 million worth of breeding pigs a year (20, 21). In 2014, pig companies were preparing to send pig semen to China – a deal that was reported to be worth up to £45 million a year to British pig farmers (22).

Denmark is the largest exporter of pork to the UK (23). In 2013, it was revealed that 97 per cent of Denmark’s pigs are on factory farms with 1,000 or more animals (19). In 2014 Viva! highlighted a report from the University of Copenhagen which revealed pigs being beaten with metal wrenches and iron chains (24). The report concluded that ‘the problem appeared to be widespread, affecting around 6 per cent of all Danish farmers’ and that ‘between 2010 and 2012, 173 pig farmers were reported to the police for violence against pigs’ (24).

Overall, only around 3 per cent of the EU pig herd was in ‘backyard farms’ (19). In 2013, the average herd size on these farms across the EU was just under 3,000 head. However, in some Eastern Member States, the typical size of ‘commercial holdings’ was much larger, averaging over 10,000 animals in Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia (19).