Followed a High Court ruling on farrowing crates and mating stalls, a closer look was prompted at how pork is produced in New Zealand. This role is carried out by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC a department within MPI) and has resulted in guideline recommendations which are highly likely to have to be implemented by the pork industry. (These guidelines ae open for consultations until July 8th and likely to be fully implemented in 2025).
What NAWAC’s brief didn’t cover was what the standards for importing pork are or need to be.
As approximately 65% of all pork consumed comes from offshore it seemed timely that a review of those countries exporting standards to New Zealand was done. Generally, MPI’s jurisdiction regarding imported meat appears to stop at legislation requiring all imported food being safe to eat. It seems ‘market forces’ are left to look at the rest.
According to NZ Pork, more than half of the pork imported to New Zealand comes from countries like the United States, Poland and Spain although others have said there are up 25 countries where pork comes from. Given that New Zealand, especially with the new regulations, likely has pig welfare standards as high and most likely higher than any competing nation, allowing pork in that has not being put under similar scrutiny to what New Zealand pig farmers are is creating a very uneven playing field.
This is especially galling when it is occurring in our own backyard where we control the rules.
Looking at the EU, from where much of our pork comes from, much of the legislation around animal welfare is so vague (using terms like “ideally” and “where possible”) it makes enforcing welfare standards almost impossible.
While there are plenty of papers from pressure groups calling for welfare standards to be improved these cannot be discounted as largely they are actually supported by an EU Briefing Paper which discusses the same issues. Largely that while some (weak) legislation exists, it is overdue for a major overhaul and far more scrutiny by the regulatory bodies is required.
The US judging by some of the literature is even further behind than the EU. Although some states are making reasonably fast progress to improve pig welfare, largely from pressure from consumers there standards will still be behind that of New Zealand.
From my understanding, the EU, Australia and the US all allow that sows may be kept in farrowing crates for up to 4 weeks post birth. The new guidelines for New Zealand are 72 hours post nesting behaviour (normally occurs just prior to giving birth). The space for the New Zealand system also requires for considerably more space be made available for both the sows and the finishing pigs.
These changes while admirable from a pig welfare perspective are considerably greater than where the bulk of our pork is imported from.
New Zealand pork is already at a cost disadvantage to imported pork due to the smaller industry size meaning there are less ‘size efficiencies’ and feed costs greater here as well. Several pork producers have made the shift to free range systems which while imposing greater costs generally mean they can achieve higher prices (not necessarily profits) and avoid some of the welfare restrictions housed systems have to adhere to.
However, one of the looming issues they will soon meet is around water and GHG issues.
Pigs not being ruminants do not create the same amount of methane ruminants do, however, nitrous oxide and nitrates to water are a different issue. Free range pigs although outside are normally farmed in reasonably intensive systems and require all of their feed to be ‘brought in’. The result of this is that there is no (or very little) herbage to ‘soak up’ surplus nitrogen from the soil of which there is a considerable amount. A back of the envelope exercise I was involved with on a visit to a free range farm some years ago came up with nitrate leaching of approximately 200kgs of N to water per hectare. No doubt the NO3 to air was also high.
So, the issue with the pork industry is almost the reverse of that of the dairy industry. Regulations are forcing dairy cows off the pasture whereas for the pork industry regulations seem to be forcing them outdoors - at least until the next wave of regulation come regarding emissions.
I find it ironic that supermarkets have been happy to respond to consumer pressure and help implement a switch to free range eggs from hens but for whatever reason they do not appear keen to apply similar welfare conditions upon pork, regardless of where it comes from.
Perhaps consumers are yet to make enough noise about it.