Animal welfare and factory farming: pigs as indoor furnishings.

The consumer wants cheap meat. He gets an animal welfare label that still allows docking and tolerates missing lying areas.

Slatted floors are said to make pigs sick. Picture: dpa

It’s so easy to forget how creative pigs are. "They quickly made it clear to us: what we do, we decide ourselves!" says Karl Harleb. Pigs want to "design their own homes. Where is my kitchen, my dining room, my bedroom?"

Farmer Harleb has 864 fattening places for pigs in his barns near Uelzen that meet the minimum criteria for the animal welfare label. The animal welfare label is a cooperation between meat giant Vion and the German Animal Welfare Association and has been in existence since 2012.

We are excited about the housing landscapes we are about to see. We, that’s about 40 journalists on a press trip with Christian Meyer, Lower Saxony’s Minister of Agriculture, with representatives from Vion and the Animal Welfare Association, as well as various expert advisors.

We are standing in front of Harleb’ barn, where he and his wife were able to "welcome the first piglets" in 2009. Before we enter the barn, we have to put on disposable coveralls. This hygiene is important, says the farmer, "we have food in the barn here!" Yes, the piglet greeter now actually says food instead of living creatures.

Lying area later

Inside, the next surprise: either pigs aren’t so great as interior decorators after all, or they haven’t gotten going yet. Inside these stalls, there’s no straw, no soil, nothing to root around in, no distinguishable areas; the barn is lined throughout with slatted flooring – that is, concrete, through the cracks of which feces and urine can drain into the pit below. Ammonia is in the air; a journalist colleague is urged to go outside to take a breath.

It’s clear where the toilet is – but where are the kitchen and dining room? we ask the farmer. Where is the bedroom? Didn’t we read up on the Internet beforehand? The condition for inclusion in the animal welfare label is the presence of a lying area – i.e. a stable area without slatted floors?

Three times we ask Gesine Harleb about this lying area, three times the farmer answers evasively: "We are still trying out …" Later, we learn the reason: the transition period for the installation of the lying surfaces, which was supposed to expire at the end of 2013 – and which is still on the Internet page of the animal welfare label – has been extended until the end of 2015. And something else hasn’t worked out yet, namely not docking the tails. The label also allows this, contrary to what was announced, until 2015.

A small scandal, because it is not about the value of the curly tails as such. The fact that the pigs nibble each other’s tails is a sign that there is a lot wrong with the way the animals are kept. An intact tail in itself is no reason to cheer about "animal welfare," but a broken tail is a negative indicator.

"Significantly more space"

So what are the differences between animal welfare label and other pig farms? For one thing, the male animals are no longer castrated without anesthesia; for another, the animals are given "more material to keep them busy," and for a third, "significantly more space." The fact that there really is "significantly" more space is said so often this afternoon that if we had received a pig for every "significantly", the stalls would now be empty. But how significantly is "significantly"? In fact, it is just under 50 percent more space per pig. That makes about 1.1 square meters instead of the 0.75 square meters required by law.

We can only hope that the pigs can do their sums well. The "Animal Welfare Initiative", by the way, which was recently presented by other representatives of the meat industry, makes even higher demands – on the pigs’ arithmetic skills: they have 10, 20 or 40 percent more space than legally required. It is advisable to give the piglets a folding rule in addition to the Ikea kitchen starter set when they are "welcomed".

The sun shines, the press bus drives to the next animal protection label stable. There are canapes and even more euphemisms: Before visiting his "outdoor climate stable," Christoph Becker announces that we will see "beautiful comfort lying areas.

Remedy sun

What is actually meant is: continuous concrete floors, i.e. without gaps. Yes, there are such in Becker’s barn, there the pigs can lie totally nice and comfortable. Regretfully, he says right at the beginning that the pigs cannot be kept on straw in his barn either. However, he goes through the stalls once a day and throws in some silage or grains, so that the pigs can occupy themselves for a few minutes.

But wait, what do we see over there? A compartment in the open, covered with straw, the pigs bathing in the sun … This is the sick compartment, the farmer explains. Most of the time, once the animals have spent some time in the sick compartment, they get well on their own. Why? Mainly because the straw relieves pressure on the joints. Becker would love to offer the pigs straw all the time, or throw in handfuls of straw more often – but who pays for that? Everything you throw in makes work when you get it out, that costs money, and the consumer wants cheap.

A professional advisor later explains to us that basically everything is not so bad. "The most important thing for the pig is that it’s full. It’s a lot like guys in that respect." (He means male humans.) "When they’re full, they sit on the sofa."

We notice some pigs whose backs are marked with pink paint. These are the pigs "just before the soup," the same expert explains, "it’s like trees, you mark them before you cut them down." Yes, thank you, we get that now.

Pigs are indoor furnishers, couch potatoes or for cutting down certain trees. There is only one thing that pigs are not allowed to be here: pigs.

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