Animal welfare

Animal welfare is an important element in pig production in Denmark.

Animal welfare is an important element in pig production in Denmark as good animal ethics and welfare will provide stronger and healthier pigs. Danish farmers can point to a continuous improvement in the pig welfare standards within their production. All Danish pigs are produced within independently monitored assurance schemes, which also require a monthly visit by the local veterinarian. In addition, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (the Danish authorities) run an annual programme of ‘unannounced’ visits to ensure that all welfare legislation is being complied with.

The organisation of the agricultural sector provides for an established system for research and development and a fast implementation of the results. Therefore, we have also come a long way concerning initiatives in animal welfare when it comes to e.g. untethered sows in all pig house units, in particular requirements for investigation and rummaging materials and special focus on the immediate environment for suckling pigs and the sows’ maternal instincts.

A declaration from 2014 signed by the authorities, the industry, animal welfare organisations and the retail trade in Denmark has formed the basis for a targeted effort to put an end to castration without anaesthesia, reduce the number of tail-docked pigs and bring attention to the pigs’ stomach health and untethered sows during the suckling period. The industry has focused on this initiative for several years and it will become a part of the future targets of the business. From 01-01-2019: requirements forlocal anaesthesia at castration.

The monitoring of the targets takes place within the self-control system of the industry, the accredited third party control DANISH and the regulatory control.

Today, most pigs in Denmark are reared in indoor production systems. Due to strict environmental legislation, the overall number of pigs born in outdoor systems has declined in recent years. Most producers who continue to produce pigs outdoors have converted to organic systems, as the ‘organic premium’ is essential to deliver a profit on an outdoor business in Denmark.

Maintaining a high level of animal health is an integral part of delivering good welfare and over 70 per cent of pigs in Denmark are born into the Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) system. It is dedicated to producing healthy animals to suit a range of herd health requirements from the ‘nucleus’ breeding herds, as well as producers of pigs for the commercial marketplace.

The production of healthy animals must be linked to good welfare practice. The key stages of producing pigs are shown in this chart and specific welfare issues apply to every stage of the production cycle.

Adequate space and light, dry resting areas and access to rooting materials are all important to meet the pigs’ behavioural needs. Farmers’ ability to observe their pigs and understand their behaviour is also the key to delivering good animal welfare. Both the production system itself and good stockmanship are crucial to delivering good welfare.

Pig welfare projects have taken an increasing share of the investment in research and development undertaken by the Danish industry, which today is managed by SEGES Pig Research Centre and primarily funded through the pig production levy. Current projects include the trialling of new systems for ‘freedom farrowing’, examining alternatives to the surgical castration of male piglets to reduce the risk of boar taint and reducing outbreaks of tail-biting.  

The welfare of sows has undoubtedly been the major topic of public debate in recent years and the UK and Sweden took the lead in banning the individual confinement of sows during pregnancy well ahead of the rest of the EU. The EU followed a similar line in 2013, but confinement of sows in the first four weeks after service is still permitted.

In response to requests from customers, the Danish industry introduced a special ‘Contract for UK Production’ in 1997 in response to requests from UK retailers. This ‘UK Contract’ is fully compatible with UK legislation, which from January 1999 did not permit any confinement of pregnant sows from service until seven days before the expected date of farrowing.

More details on the Contract for UK Production are available here.

In other areas, Danish legislation frequently operates to higher standards than those required by EU legislation. For example, there is a requirement for provision of showering systems for all pigs over 20kg weight to enable them to regulate their body temperature in hot weather. A ban on the use of fully slatted flooring systems, still permitted in the EU, was implemented in 2015 to allow pigs a more comfortable lying area, alongside the health and hygiene benefits afforded with slatted floors. Danish legislation also lays down further specific requirements above the EU baseline for tail-docking, tooth reduction, the provision and design of ‘hospital pens’ for sick or injured pigs and access to materials of ‘natural origin’ to meet their needs for rooting behaviour, as use of plastics and other synthetic materials is not permitted in Denmark.

A future strategy for improving pig welfare in Denmark was agreed at a Pig Welfare Summit, convened in March 2014 by the then Minister of Agriculture, Dan Jørgensen. The agreement was signed by a wide range of pig industry stakeholders including the government, NGOs and consumer organisations, representatives from pig producers, the veterinary profession and retailers.

The goals agreed included the following:

Improve piglet survival rates:
The industry has committed to reducing the current levels of piglet mortality from birth to weaning. A ‘Pattegris Liv’ (‘Live Piglet’) project now collects data on mortality levels and further research will seek to identify factors which contribute to lower levels of mortality. Best management practices will also be identified and communicated to farms experiencing high levels of mortality.

Achieve transition to loose housing of sows throughout the production process:
Danish legislation already requires that any new investments in sow housing must include facilities for group housing of sows from service to seven days before the expected date of farrowing. Major research is being undertaken to identify optimum systems for the loose housing of sows during farrowing and lactation, with the objective of having 10 per cent of Danish sows kept in these systems by 2020.

Develop alternative strategies to avoid occurrence of ‘boar taint’ without recourse to castration of male piglets:
Castration of male piglets in the first few days of life significantly reduces the risk of ‘boar taint’ or the unpleasant odour when pork from uncastrated male pigs is cooked and eaten. Along with a number of other EU countries, the Danish industry is a signatory to ‘The EU declaration on alternatives to surgical castration of pigs,’ focused on phasing out the castration of male piglets by 2018. Major research is already underway to examine alternative strategies, such as the use of different breeding, management and feeding regimes during production, as well as the use of anaesthetic rather than analgesics prior to the procedure taking place – the latter has been a legal requirement in Denmark since 2009. Research is also taking place to examine the possibility of introducing on-line monitoring at the abattoir to identify the presence of ‘boar taint’ in male pig carcasses.

Reduce the use of tail-docking as a measure to eliminate tail-biting:
There is still no universal agreement on the causes of outbreaks of tail-biting, which can occur in both extensive and intensive pig production systems. Research is now being undertaken to improve understanding of its causes and to look at methods of early recognition and prevention of outbreaks in herds.

Reduce the incidence of stomach ulcers in finished pigs:
New feed trials are being undertaken and widespread screening of individual herds is now taking place and action plans are being introduced where higher levels of stomach ulcers occur.

Beyond the farm gate, the Danish industry has implemented many changes in recent years to raise standards in the transport of pigs to the abattoir and the handling of groups of animals prior to slaughter. High standards and good management during the potentially stressful periods during transport and before slaughter not only represent good welfare practice but bring significant economic benefits. In well managed systems, the risk of stress and injury is reduced, with a positive influence on the quality of the meat produced.

Within Denmark, transport time is less than 3 hours for 95 per cent of the pigs delivered to the abattoir. All Danish pigs are transported directly to the abattoir in specially equipped vehicles. The Danish authorities must approve all vehicles and the industry itself has issued specific requirements for their design. All vehicles must be equipped with GPS, mechanical ventilation and drinking facilities. All drivers of vehicles transporting animals must undergo formal training to provide them with a good understanding of the animals’ needs and welfare.

Currently, Denmark is the only EU country which has systematic registration of the levels of pig mortality during transport and this data is put into the public domain. The data shown in this chart confirms that mortality levels both during transport and at the abattoir have fallen progressively over the last thirty years. For example, during transport, the mortality figure is 0.007 per cent.

For pigs transported outside of Denmark, new EU regulations are now observed by all Danish hauliers, who are also subject to detailed control by the Danish authorities.

Wherever possible, Danish pigs are kept in small and stable groups during transport and lairage at the abattoir prior to slaughter. Pigs are stunned in groups in a system developed by the Danish Meat Research Institute (DMRI), which is now in operation in all export approved slaughterhouses and in many abattoirs outside Denmark. The new ‘group stunning’ system was launched in the 1990s and its primary goal was to minimise stress to the animals by keeping them in groups, allowing free will movement and keeping human intervention to an absolute minimum. The work of the DMRI was formally recognised in 2015 by the Humane Slaughter Association who presented the organisation with its Humane Slaughter Award – ‘in recognition of significant advances in the humane slaughter of farmed livestock’.

Danish slaughterhouses use carbon dioxide to stun pigs prior to slaughter. Danish and EU legislation states that the exposure to carbon dioxide during stunning must be adequate to ensure the pigs remain unconscious until death. The stun-to-stick intervals used at Danish slaughterhouses comply with guidelines laid down by the European Food Safety Authority, linking the length of exposure to CO2 to the maximum interval between stunning and sticking. The DMRI recently developed a ‘vision-based system’, VisStick, which ensures that all pigs are properly ‘stuck’ before slaughter, now operating in most slaughterhouses in Denmark.

Read more about the different aspects of animal welfare in the primary production