Almost 18 months after pork producers agreed to ban steel pens, a third of pregnant sows are no longer confined to the small stalls.
More piglets have been “born free” since 2010, when pork producers agreed to voluntarily ban the use of sow stall use by 2017.
Figures from the peak pork industry group, Australian Pork Limited, show that one in three sows now spend their pregnancies outside gestation crates, but animal welfare activists say more can – and should – be done.
The 200 centimetre long and 60 centimetre wide metal-barred cratesare used to hold all sows for at least part of their 16-week pregnancy.
The increased hormone levels in pregnant sows can often lead to fighting between the female pigs, which can cause abortion and damage to the animal.
Housing them in the stalls allows them to be protected from other sows and to receive the proper nutrition they need during their pregnancy, which they might otherwise not receive due to hierarchy and fights over food.
The Australian Pork Limited findings showed that 67 per cent of pregnant sows were still housed in the stalls one to four weeks after mating, while the remainder where not in the stalls at any stage of pregnancy.
Animals Australia’s Lyn White, believes that while it is ”pleasing” that some pig producers are no longer confining the pigs to the cages, the ban should be introduced sooner than first decided.
”The two-thirds of pigs who remain subjected to the cruelty of sow stalls won’t be alive to receive the benefits in 2017,” she said.
”It is clearly within the ability of the pig industry to alleviate their suffering now.”
But a spokesperson from Australian Pork Limited told Food Magazine that many people don’t understand why the stalls are used and how it ensures the safety of the sows.
“As an agricultural group, we are looking at ways to please the consumers and also ensure the safety of the animals, because there are a lot of pictures out there that make it look bad, but in reality it is in the wellbeing of the animal and her piglets.
“But the agricultural industry is finding it hard to recruit workers, so we’re trying to source skilled labour sources from south-east asia.”
“Piggery workers have to undergo skills set training.”
In response to questions about the Animals Australia’s calls to introduce the ban sooner than 2017, the spokesperson said it is not as simple as some people think.
“The problem we have is you can’t liken this move to walking into a room and turning off a light, it’s far more complicated that that, and we always have the welfare of animals at heart.
“And for producers to make changes within their own infrastructure, they need authority approval, from local councils and state regulatory services, and that takes time.
“Then need finances to undertake the changes.”
The spokesperson explained that the readily available horror stories and images of animals housed in the stalls during pregnancy are not painting a realistic picture.
“People are under the false impression that every pig is in a cage, but these sow stalls are only relevant to pregnant pigs, and they are placed in there for safety reasons,” the spokesperson told Food Magazine.
“What it means is that they are mated and within 5 day period are moved to groups.
“Depending on the operation, each producer will decide the size and location of the group and when they’re nearly ready to give birth they are moved to a farrowing stall, a birthing stall, which is a spring-loaded contraption to prevent her suffocating the piglets by lying on them.
“This alone saves about 1 million babies per year.”
By 2014, Coles has pledged to only stock fresh pork meat supplied by producers who have abandoned sow stalls, and experience would indicate Woolworths would quickly follow suit.
“With regard to the retail sector, agreements like that are between producers and the retailer concerned, but as an industry group we are trying to ensure the welfare of animals while also pleasing consumers.
“About 65 to 70 per cent of all ham, bacon and small good products sold in Australia is made from imported pork.
“Different countries have different regulation in regards to sow stalls.
Ean Pollard, chairman of the NSW Farmers’ Association pork committee agreed that a fast-track on the ban would not be realistic for most farmers.
Australia’s biggest producer of fresh pork meat, Rivalea, began voluntarily phasing out sow stalls in 2007.
”We knew that, in terms of perceptions, it was going to be very difficult to defend [the use of sow stalls], so we did not want to end up in the situation in 10 years that we were left behind,” general manager of farming operations at Rivalea Australia, Kenton Shaw, said.
About 75 per cent of its 18,000 sow stalls have been replaced and by next year, Shaw expects there to be zero use of the stalls.
While Animals Australia has been critical of the transition process, the RSPCA has praised the pork industry’s commitment to change.
“It’s good to see this commitment by Australian pork producers and a third of sows already benefiting from a stall free environment,” RSPCA Australia CEO, Heather Neil, said.
“The RSPCA appreciates the significance of the commitment these pig producers have made and we look forward to monitoring the industry progress towards a complete end to the use of sow stalls in Australia.”
Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Senator Joe Ludwig has also welcomed the action.
“The industry is making real progress towards phasing out sow stalls,” he said.
“I look forward to this level of commitment continuing as they work to achieve their end goal.”