Op-ed

The heartbreaking lives of pigs raised for meat

Animal Equality reveals the brutality of Europe’s pig meat industry and illegal activities on farms for which many perpetrators haven’t yet been punished.

No matter which country we’ve sent our investigators to, the results have always been the same: heartbreaking footage captured of suffering pigs being tormented and abused. The pig meat industry is violent and unforgiving, and it seems that even in the context of “high welfare” schemes the brutality persists despite animal protection assurances.

Pigs in a farm
The pig meat industry is violent and unforgiving, and it seems that even in the context of “high welfare” schemes the brutality persists © Animal Equality

UK pigs suffer in the shadows of acclaimed farm

In the last few months, we’ve released three investigations into the operations of pig farms in three separate countries. The latest was in Aberdeenshire, Scotland at the P&G Sleigh Pig Unit. Our investigator filmed troubling scenes as well as a number of serious legal violations on the farm, which is owned by senior pig industry figure Philip Sleigh. Pigs raised on the “quality assured” farm are slaughtered at a nearby abattoir contracted by Pilgrim’s Pride, a large meat company that supplies Lidl, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer amongst other major restaurants and retailers.

“Assured” suffering in pigs farms

The covert footage revealed, among other atrocities, piglets deemed to be too small or too weak killed by being slammed onto a concrete floor or hammered to death. One farmworker claimed that using a hammer to kill a pig was “as good as any bullet.” We filmed pigs showing signs of consciousness, such as gasping and wriggling, after multiple blows to the head. One piglet showed signs of life for over four minutes after the first hammer strike hit her.

Describing this as “some of the most disturbing footage” he’s ever seen, Professor Andrew Knight, Veterinary Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics at the University of Winchester, stated that “the suffering of these ill and injured pigs would’ve been considerable, yet no signs of appropriate veterinary care were visible.”

Pigs suffering in farms
In footage collected by Animal Equality, the suffering of ill and injured pigs would’ve been considerable, yet no signs of appropriate veterinary care were visible © Animal Equality

The fallout

Sleigh is a well-known industry figure and a former Chair of the National Farmers Union’s Scotland Pigs Working Group. As a result of our investigation, the farm has been removed from the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) assurance scheme and Sleigh — who just weeks ago held the role of Chair of the QMS’ Pig Standards Setting Committee — is now no longer a board member of the initiative. Also, thousands of people signed our petition calling for better protections for pigs, including Avengers: Endgame actress Karen Gillan.

“Sleigh was entrusted with a position of power, and yet his own farm breached the very standards that he helped set,” says Abigail Penny, Executive Director of Animal Equality UK. “QMS boasts being proud of its standards, yet it took Animal Equality to uncover these serious breaches on its board member’s farm. How can QMS claim to take animal welfare seriously when its own poster-boy didn’t?”.

The truth behind the “excellence of made in Italy”

In Northern Italy, industrial animal farmers market their products with a prideful seal of approval that translates to the “Excellence of Made in Italy.” In reality, these producers have created an industry that exploits animals and profits from their misery.

In collaboration with Italian television, Animal Equality released an investigation that reveals the suffering of pigs bred for meat on farms in the Italian city of Brescia. Joined by journalist Roberta Spinelli, we documented terrible abuses and suffering — images in stark contrast to the idyllic picture of contented animals on green pastures often painted by the region’s producers. The investigative team found pigs abandoned and left to die in corridors, bodies of dead pigs among living ones, and pigs with cysts and sores unable to walk because of their open wounds.

“Thanks to this investigation, the horrors of Brescia’s pig farms have been clearly revealed. We can no longer turn our heads from the suffering which these sentient beings are forced to endure —mistreatment that happens behind the closed doors of these polluting farms, which are often beneficiaries of public funds. We need more checks and balances for these places and we need them now,” explains Alice Trombetta, Executive Director of Animal Equality Italy.

In Italy, more than 8 million pigs are raised every year on industrial farms, 4 million of which in Lombardy alone. Of these, almost 1.5 million are raised in the province of Brescia, an area also affected by pollution and sewage spills related to the massive presence of intensive farming.

Cruelty and pollution produced in Spain

In an area with the highest concentration of intensive pig farms in the Iberian Peninsula, Animal Equality has brought to light distressing scenes from a farm of horrors located in Catalonia, Spain. Our investigator’s footage shows the farm is non-compliant with Spanish regulations for the protection of pigs, as well as evidence of sanitation irregularities and possible environmental crimes.

Pigs were filmed living among excrement, as well as eating food and drinking water contaminated with faeces. Overcrowded living conditions that lacked natural stimuli were the norm at this farm, causing the pigs to bite each other’s tails and ears due to the stressful environment. We even found injured pigs, some only able to crawl, who didn’t have the strength to move and were left to die without veterinary attention.

An environmental study commissioned by Animal Equality certified the illegal dumping of slurry that was leaking into the subsoil and polluting water near the Congost River. The study also confirmed that the discharges of slurry are recurrent and that the area’s level of nitrates is close to double the average for pig farms in the region. In Catalonia, 41 per cent of the aquifers are contaminated and 142 municipalities have problems accessing drinking water.

“Environmental problems and animal abuse are inherent to intensive livestock farming. Due to the concentration of intensive pig farms, almost half of Catalonia’s aquifers are contaminated. Our investigation has revealed a systemic problem that needs to be addressed,” says Silvia Barquero, Executive Director of Animal Equality Spain.

Pigs in farms
Environmental problems and animal abuse are inherent to intensive livestock farming © Animal Equality

Standing up to a greedy industry

The meat industry has one goal: to make money. It will stop at nothing to entice consumers to spend their hard-earned cash on its cruel products, even if those products are known to cause cancer and are linked to various other health conditions, in addition to causing millions of animals to suffer. In addition, the European Commission has been using public funds to subsidise shady advertising campaigns to prop up the industry, sectors of which that have been faltering as a result of the industry’s own bad behaviour.

Despite scientific evidence showing that consumption of meat, specifically red meat, is linked to poor health, the European Union has allocated almost 140 million euros to promotional campaigns for meat and meat products. This includes a recent campaign called “Let’s talk about pork,” which was launched in response to the decreasing sales of pig meat.

The campaign aims to reshape the pig industry’s negative image caused by the controversy over sustainability and the animal welfare concerns of the public, specifically young consumers. The campaign goes as far as to claim it wants to end “fake news,” as well as show that pig farms are operated with “scrupulous respect for the highest standards of animal welfare“. However, as our investigations have shown, pigs on European farms are abused and kept in severe confinement for months on end. Not to mention the massive amounts of waste and pollution caused by industrial pig farming.

Pushing back

In Spain, the pig industry (Interporc) has been financed with public funds for years and recently received a grant of more than 9 million euros to continue promoting its products in 2020 and part of 2021, including through the “Let’s talk about pork” campaign.

Animal Equality Spain has acted to stop this funding by contacting the European Commission and creating a national petition calling for an end to the use of public funds for meat industry marketing. A counter-campaign called “Real or Fake?” that debunks the myths spread by Interporc has also been launched.

The good news is that our investigations and public education campaigns against animal farming are working, as evidenced by the decrease in the consumption of meat from pigs due to animal welfare concerns. However, these industries have powerful allies and millions in funds, and won’t stop spreading disinformation without a fight. Now, more than ever, our work to expose the truth about factory farming is crucial to enacting future change.

Pigs crowded on top of eachother
Now, more than ever, our work to expose the truth about factory farming is crucial to enacting future change © Animal Equality

What comes next and how you can help

Sadly, the shocking scenes on these farms are just a small example of the pain and suffering farmed animals go through every day. The pig industry mustn’t be allowed to continue misleading consumers. In each of the cited countries, we’re pushing for improved enforcement of existing animal welfare laws as well as increased legal protections to be put in place for pigs.

In the UK, we’ve sent letters outlining the breaches of animal welfare legislation to the relevant authorities, urging them to take immediate action against violators by using the full force of the law. A criminal investigation is underway. In Italy, in addition to a formal complaint against the owners of the farm, a petition addressed to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Health was launched asking for more frequent and effective controls to be carried out — unannounced — in order to ensure compliance with the country’s rules on hygiene and animal welfare. And in Spain, we started the #SecretoIbérico campaign to expose the truths in the country’s pig industry, as well as reported irregularities to local authorities so that farm operators can be held accountable.

We’ve been able to release investigations that reveal the routine cruelty on these farms as well as create important campaigns that allow us to collaborate with local authorities to create much-needed change. You too can make an immediate difference by leaving animals off your plate, as well as encouraging others to do the same. We won’t stop until all farmed animals, including pigs, are safe from harm.

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