The World Organization for Animal Health, an international body that sets standards for animal health in international trade, says that sows should be housed in groups because they are social animals. The recommendation is significant because it strikes a blow against the use of gestation crates, which are narrow cages used to confine millions of breeding sows all over the world.
On May 24th, veterinary delegates to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris, which has 181 member countries, voted to include a new chapter on the welfare of pigs in the organization’s Terrestrial Animal Health Code. The code is not binding on member countries, but recommendations may be used as a basis for animal welfare legislation, and are referenced as an authoritative source of animal welfare information by governments. They have the potential to influence OIE member countries such as China, where half of the world’s pigs are located. In many of these member countries, industrial farming is rising sharply, but animal welfare is still a new concept.
In 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that more than half of the nearly 1.5 billion pigs in the world are raised in intensive production systems, including gestation crates, which are cages so small that the animals cannot even turn around.
“Sows and gilts, like other pigs, are social animals and prefer living in groups, therefore pregnant sows and gilts should preferably be housed in groups,” according to new language in the chapter. The chapter further advises that animal handlers be trained and skilled, and that daily animal inspections be conducted. It acknowledges that routine procedures like surgical castration, tail docking, teeth clipping and identification methods (which often involve cutting pieces of flesh from the ears of pigs) are painful, and suggests options for replacing or refining these procedures. The chapter recommends the pigs be provided with environmental enrichment, such as straw bedding, allowing them to perform their natural foraging and rooting behavior.
Humane Society International contributed to the development of the draft chapter through our membership in the International Coalition for Animal Welfare, the official body of animal protection organizations recognized by the OIE.
A number of nations, including New Zealand, Israel, India, Sweden and the United Kingdom, have banned gestation crates and their use is restricted in the European Union and Canada. The industry is phasing out their continual use in South Africa and Australia, and in Brazil, one of the world’s largest pork producers and exporters, HSI has worked with many of the country’s most prominent producers to move the industry toward group housing for sows, which is more humane.
Stateside, the Humane Society of the United States has helped grocers, restaurants, hospitality and food service retailers and other corporations enact purchasing policies that don’t allow gestation crates. We have led successful campaigns to pass legislation banning or phasing out the use of gestation crates in 10 states, and in California, we are poised to place a measure on the November 2018 ballot that would end the intensive confinement of breeding sows, hens and calves and the sale of products that come from these animals.
The United States, as a voting member of the OIE, could play an important role in sending a strong set of recommendations, but unfortunately the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not been a vocal advocate for animal welfare at the OIE. In the national position sent to the OIE prior to this year’s assembly of delegates, the United States actually proposed language that would have weakened the chapter on pigs and other animal welfare sections of the OIE code, going so far as to suggest that abnormal behavior patterns (repetitive, stereotypic bar-biting, for example) displayed by pigs in barren, intensive confinement “have a purpose” and “are not a consistent indicator of negative welfare”. There was even an unsuccessful attempt by the United States to remove the line recommending group housing from the chapter.
Given that major U.S. producers like Smithfield Foods, Hormel, Cargill and Clemens Food Group have already taken steps toward group housing, it’s time for our government to stop clinging to outdated practices. The market is shifting toward higher welfare systems and failing to keep up serves neither the animals nor the farmers.