Animal welfare continues to make the news internationally. During the past year, interest in the welfare of pigs has grown worldwide, with at least as much attention given to consumer attitudes as on regulating farm systems.

Japanese industry sources say the welfare of livestock on farms has not been on the minds of their consumers to any great extent until recently. But the governmental ministry of agriculture in Japan announced earlier this year that it was forming an advisory committee to look more closely into the subject. The members of the committee include representatives of pig equipment companies as well as producers and scientists. It is now in the early stages of a study that will report back to the ministry on the current welfare status and recommendations for the future.

Pig weaning methods in the spotlight

Brazil is another country that tends to be less associated with concerns over on-farm pig welfare. The subject is far from ignored there, however. One research publication in 2008 involving Brazilian institute Embrapa Suínos e Aves and the federal university of Santa Catarina has checked piglets after three common systems of weaning.

The first of these meant mixing pigs weaned from two litters at three weeks old and moving them into newly formed groups in nursery pens. The study compared this with keeping litters intact in the nursery after weaning at the same age and also with the less conventional approach of moving out the sow while allowing her pigs to remain in the pen of their birth.

Out of these three possibilities, the observations by the Brazilian team indicated mix-and-move to be the worst option. Its piglets ate less in the first two days after being weaned, they exhibited the greatest signs of disturbed behaviour over a period of 10 days and they sustained the most skin wounds in the first week of their occupation of the nursery. The biggest contrast was with the litters left in the farrowing pen after their mother had departed. These spent more time resting and less time in fighting-type exchanges, in addition to the fact that they achieved the largest feed intake in the early days of the post-weaning period.

The act of weaning has long been recognised as a source of stress on young pigs where it requires them to adjust to a sudden change in feed while moving to a strange pen and possibly also acquiring new pen-mates.

Table: Full monitoring system applied to sows and piglets on farms 

Noise is less often mentioned in the context of stresses affecting pigs, but it was highlighted this year by a report in the UK to a forum held under the auspices of the British Veterinary Association.

The focus here was on the lairage of holding area for pigs at the slaughterhouse. The industry lacks specific definitions for ventilation and for space allowances in these areas, said the report. All that is called for on climate requirements is the certainty that airflow characteristics in lairages must be sufficient to control levels of toxic or irritant gases in all seasons and, most particularly in hot weather, to remove excess heat and humidity. On area, the one fact known is that the space required increases according to the length of time the pigs are held in this area before going for slaughter.

Noise comes into the reckoning because the intensity of sound present in a typical lairage facility can often exceed 85 decibels. There is evidence to suggest that such levels can be stressful for pigs. It is not helped if the workers in the lairage raise their voices; human shouting appears to be particularly aversive to animals.


Canvassing for consumer opinions

However, it is the voices of consumers that have been loudest recently, echoed through various attempts at canvassing opinions over the importance of animal welfare when buying food products.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. In 2005, a survey probed attitudes of people throughout the then-25 member states of the European Union. Their replies showed an average of 55% of Europe's consumers suggesting that animal welfare had not been given enough prominence in their homeland.

In the UK, the proportion went above 60%. What is more, some 74% of EU residents on average thought that animal welfare would be impacted positively if more people took the trouble to buy welfare-friendly products. Move forward to 2007, however, and research firm IGD reported finding only 37% of European consumers who expressed concern about the living conditions of farm animals.

Sometimes this is attributed to poor labeling, with shoppers complaining of difficulty in identifying which products are genuinely welfare-friendly. More often it is simply a matter of cost.

Can consumers afford to consider the welfare aspects of food production systems? The question was asked again this year at the British veterinary forum. While speakers offered a variety of answers, there was a clear implication that only a relatively small proportion of shoppers had enough disposable income to be able to choose in favour of a welfare-labelled item if it was more expensive than the conventional alternative.

In the European Union, there is an EU-funded research project known as Welfare Quality that is designed to help integrate farm animal welfare into the food chain. One part of this seeks the development of on-farm systems for assessing the welfare of pigs and other animals (see accompanying report about the project's work in monitoring sows). Another takes into account society's expectations and market demands.

Project leaders note that the actions of people as food consumers do influence animal welfare perspectives, but that the linkages in this respect vary considerably across Europe.

Results from a Welfare Quality survey conducted by seven research centres questioning 10,500 people in 2007 found that the proportion holding this belief ranged from almost 70% in the Netherlands to 87% in Italy. Between these two extremes the reported rates were 73% of respondents in the UK, 75% in France, 83% in Hungary and in Sweden, and 84% in Norway.

When asking about changes over the last 10 years, the survey encountered a majority of consumers thinking that conditions for farm animals had improved, whereas fewer than one in five thought the situation had become worse. But as Welfare Quality remarks, worry over welfare does not translate into altered shopping habits. Often, people express a general concern over welfare matters, but do not necessarily follow that concern with specific action.