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Ethical Pork: Sow Stall Free vs Free Range vs Organic

Ethical Pork: Sow Stall Free vs Free Range vs Organic

Ethical Pork: Sow Stall Free vs Free Range vs Organic This week, it's our piggy friends' lives that I'm examining. I've written about ethical chicken and eggs, and ethical beef in Australia, and this week I'm checking out ethical pork. Pigs are highly intelligent animals, smarter than dogs, and just as smart as chimpanzees. They live in complex social communities and are empathetic. However, sows are routinely confined to stalls for long periods for breeding. Meat pigs are raised indoors in huge sheds with no access to the outdoors. They have little stimuli, they're bored and overcrowded. As the pigs said in Animal Farm, “Let's face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short.”

What is conventionally farmed pork?

Conventionally farmed pigs are housed in crowded sheds, with nothing to engage their intelligent brains. They get bored, which leads to behaviour problems like aggression and bullying. There's nowhere to escape to, they can't go outside, and it's too crowded anyway. In Australia, it's quite legal for pigs to be treated like this:
  • male piglets may be castrated without anaesthetic within the first few days of their lives
  • newborn piglets can have their teeth clipped to prevent injury to the sow's teats (because there is not enough room for the sow to move away from her piglets)
  • piglets may have their tails clipped to prevent them being bitten by other (bored and aggressive) pigs
  • piglets are weaned at 3 weeks
  • sows are regularly confined to sow stalls for 16 weeks at a time
  • sows may be confined in farrowing crates for six weeks or longer
  • growth hormones and antibiotics are given to pigs daily in the last 30 days of their lives
Around 95% of pork in Australia is raised using these conventional farming methods. A model code of practice was published by the CSIRO in 2007, and this is supposed to be implemented by all pig farmers by 2017. The new standards include:
  • sow stalls for no more than six weeks at a time (but this is 'best practice' and sows are routinely kept in stalls for longer than this)
  • farrowing crates for up to 4 weeks
  • feeding systems should be designed to limit intimidation, aggression and bullying from other pigs
Castration, tail docking, nose ringing and teeth clipping are all still allowed. Growth hormones and routine antibiotics to promote growth are also allowed.

What is sow stall free pork?

The CSIRO model code of practice says that sows shouldn't be confined to stalls for any more than six weeks of pregnancy. In practice, sows are in stalls much longer than this. Sow stalls are used because sows can be aggressive during pregnancy, and confining them to stalls prevents injuries and pregnancy loss. They are also used to ensure that sows have access to food and aren't bullied by other pregnant sows. Sows can be confined in stalls for all or part of their pregnancy (which can be up to 115 days). While they're in the stalls, sows can't turn around and they can't get out. The Australian Pork industry is committed to phasing out sow stalls by 2017, but this is a voluntary scheme, and is not enforceable. Farrowing crates are crates for sows who are just about to give birth (farrow), and they're used until the piglets are weaned. Sows are confined to farrowing crates for around 4 weeks. They're designed to prevent sows crushing their piglets (which happens even with free range pigs), and although there's been research done on alternative designs to farrowing crates, nothing has yet been found. So although a sow may be 'stall free', she may still be kept in a farrowing crate. These crates are even smaller than sow stalls. Sow stall free pork means that sows haven't been confined to stalls while they're pregnant. The pork that we eat is not from breeding sows, so it means that the pork is from pigs born to mothers that weren't confined to a sow stall for the whole of her pregnancy. It doesn't mean that the pork is free range, as the piglets are still conventionally grown.

What about free range pork?

Like chickens and eggs, there is no legal definition of free range here in Australia. Recently, the ACCC has had some success in holding manufacturers to account for making misleading claims. There are independent free range pork certifiers. Some of them are:
  • Pasture Raised on Open Fields (PROOF)
  • Humane Choice
  • Australian Pork Industry Quality Assurance (APIQ, also Australian Pork Free Range)
RSPCA has three different standards:
  • indoor pigs (born and raised indoors, so not at all free range)
  • bred free range (breeding pigs are kept outdoors, growing pigs are raised indoors)
  • free range (born and raised outdoors)
They have some basic standards in common:
  • no sow stalls, and no farrowing cages
  • must have at least 6 hours of continuous darkness each night
  • environment must be enriched so that they can root and forage, with toys for stimulation and the ability to wallow
  • pigs must be housed in groups to allow for natural social behaviours
  • piglets can't be weaned before they're 3 weeks old
  • physical castration isn't permitted
  • no nose ringing, tail docking or routine teeth clipping
  • boars may have tusks trimmed to prevent injury, but this must be done under heavy sedation, by a vet
RSPCA requirements for indoor pigs:
  • lactating or farrowing sows must have at least 7m2 per sow (and a similar size for boars)
  • growing pigs must have enough space for all pigs to lie down outstretched at the same time
  • must have sufficient and clean bedding
RSPCA requirements for outdoor pigs:
  • no more than 30 sows/boars per hectare
  • must have adequate shelter from the weather
The APIQ standards required that free range pork for Coles supermarkets are given no growth hormones, but other conventional and free range pork can be given growth hormones. Humane Choice has similar requirements as the RSPCA for outdoor pigs, but also add:
  • no growth hormones, and antibiotics only for treatment of illness
  • piglets can't be weaned before six weeks of age
Without national standards for free range, it's hard to work out exactly what you're getting. What you can be assured of, though, is that buying certified free range pork is much better for the pigs. As always, make sure that you're buying certified free range, and look for the logo.

What about Organic Pork?

Organic pork and pork products must be certified to one of the Australian certified organic standards. Some of these are:
  • ACO (Australian Certified Organic)
  • BFA (Biological Farmers Association)
  • NASAA (National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia)
  • OFA (organic food chain) and
  • OGA (Organic Growers of Australia)
Australian certified organic standards hold animal welfare to be of the highest importance:
  • pigs have access to pastures so that they can engage in social groups and natural behaviour
  • they have exercise and play areas that allow them to root around and have natural stimulation
  • pigs must have enough space for normal social behaviour
  • there must be enough feed troughs and drinking water for all pigs to access, and to allow natural social groups, but avoid excess bullying
  • no sow stalls, farrowing crates or cages
  • sows can't be tethered
  • no growth promoters
  • no tail docking, nose ringing or teeth clipping
  • feed must be pesticide, herbicide and synthetic fertiliser free, as well as non GMO for the whole of the pigs' lives
  • they may never be given antibiotics (if they are given them for health reasons, they can no longer be classed as organic)
Organic standards focus on animal welfare, environmental sustainability and protecting the habitats of native animals. Certified organic is the highest standard for ethical pork. Make sure to look for the certified organic logos on your pork and pork products, so that you know that you're getting produce from farms with high standards of animal welfare. If there's no logo, it can simply mean that animals have been fed organic feed, or it can be simple, misleading greenwash. Always look for the logo.

Misleading claims on pork

Marketers like to use terms on their packaging to make us think that we're getting a better, more ethical or higher welfare product. They're aiming to confuse us in the split second that we take to choose between products. Here's a few to watch out for:
  • All Natural. One of our favourite meaningless claims. As we've discussed before, natural has no legal meaning, so ignore this when you're choosing products.
  • Australian Pork, Australian made, 100% Australian grown pork. While it's better to buy Australian (and local if possible), it doesn't mean that Australian pork is higher welfare.
  • Free range. It's not free range unless it's certified free range. In September 2015, the ACCC won a case against Primo Smallgoods for claiming that their pigs were free range, when in fact they weren't. Always look for the logos, because that's your guarantee.
  • Bred free range. This can just means that the sow has given birth outdoors, but the piglet is raised indoors. The ACCC noted the use of the terms 'Bred free range' and 'outdoor bred' referred to the sow rather than the pigs that are being raised for meat. Designed to mislead, wouldn't you say? The court agreed.
  • Outdoor bred can simply mean that the pig is born outdoors, but is raised for the whole of it's life indoors. This was also part of the ACCC case against Australian Pork Limited, who have now changed this to say 'Outdoor bred. Raised Indoors on Straw.' Which still makes you think of a nice airy barn (when it's a huge crowded shed), but it doesn't make you think that it's free range.

So what's the verdict on ethical pork in Australia?

Unlike beef, conventional pork production in this country isn't great. At the very least, you need to be buying certified free range pork, and if you can afford it, go for organic. If you can't afford free range or organic pork, cut down on your consumption. Have a couple of meat free days, and then spend what you save on those days on higher welfare meat. Do you seek out free range or organic pork from higher welfare animals? Share your thoughts in the comments below.   Get the latest posts straight to your inbox every week!
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