Animal welfare historically hasn’t been a high priority in China, but as the country continues to rise in the global pork industry, things are starting to change for the better.
It’s a country home to some 500 million pigs, where half of the world’s swine are produced and consumed every year.
For China, pigs are serious business — so much so that the current high costs of pork were hailed by economists as the reason the country was able to fend off an economic slowdown for longer than experts first anticipated.
But despite the place pigs have in China’s economy and on its menus, their welfare has only very recently become a factor in pork production.
The country currently has very little in the way of animal-welfare legislation and few people think, or indeed know, about welfare either (according to a survey in 2011, about 70% of people questioned said they had never heard of animal welfare).
As a result, producers have had little reason to think about how their animals are reared or factor welfare into their production systems. It means many animals have been kept in poor conditions that would be illegal in Europe — born on slatted beds with no chance of seeing daylight.
However, as international export markets begin to open up, multinational companies start to open their own operations in China and consumer demands for safe, quality food continue to grow, there are signs that things are starting to change.
Joining forces for welfare
It’s a shift that UK animal-welfare group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) is seeking to add its own weight to in a bid to get things changing even faster.
The organization has joined forces with the International Cooperation Committee on Animal Welfare (ICCAW), China’s only government-approved pig organization.
It hopes to work with ICCAW to help raise pig-welfare standards and educate companies about how improving the lives of pigs can boost food quality and business performance.
“Our work in China began in 2004 when we hosted an international conference on animal welfare and food safety with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA),” says Tracey Jones, CIWF’s director of food business.
“The Chinese delegates were fascinated by what we were talking about, because they didn’t even have a word for animal welfare at the time.
“After the conference we started speaking to academics and farmer groups to make connections in China, which is how we linked up with ICCAW.”
Founded by lawyer Xi Chunling, ICCAW was set up in a bid to help Chinese producers learn how to raise their production standards so they could meet international welfare demands, which would enable them to export their produce.
Xi also hoped that by helping lift standards, producers would also be able to better meet the demands of China’s growing middle class for safe, better-quality food.
In a bid to help ICCAW increase its influence, CIWF has given its support to help it find ways to engage with large-scale pig producers, encouraging them to consider introducing higher-welfare systems. It is also working with ICCAW on a voluntary code of practice for China’s pig industry, which it hopes will one day be brought into legislation.
These are long-term goals, Jones admits, so to reward the good work being done by producers now, CIWF and ICCAW have established the Good Pig Award program — a five-star, progressive award that recognizes producers who are making commitments to improve welfare.
“The aim is to showcase the producers who are doing good things already in China, so that other producers know that higher welfare is possible,” she says.
“Once they are certified, we hope they will talk about it in promotional material, and more people will come to learn about and understand welfare.”
CIWF estimates that the commitments and practices of its award winners are benefiting more than 750,000 pigs worldwide, and while welfare is in its early days in China, Jones is confident that it is starting to be taken seriously.
“We are a drop in the ocean in terms of China’s pig industry and there’s still lots to do, but there’s a growing momentum amongst academics and producers, they are interested in animal welfare and they are hungry for knowledge and solutions,” she says.
“They want to be able to export and look to European, Russian and Japanese markets, so they know they have to make improvements.”
Alberto Alvarez, food chain manager at Zoetis, says the success Europe has had in using its higher welfare standards to add value to its products also appeals to China’s pig industry.
“At the Sino-EU Business Conference in Beijing in April, some of Europe’s biggest pork exporters explained how they were utilizing the EU’s high welfare standards to add value to their pork,” he says.
“They are developing high-welfare pork as a new meat concept, which was helping their products compete with other countries where standards are not necessarily as high.”
Alvarez says China’s producers realize that improving welfare is important, but at the moment they don’t know how to use it to add value to their pork by convincing consumers that it is worth paying more for.
“China’s retailers need to change their current philosophy which is based on low prices, and develop customer loyalty through new products and concepts where animal welfare actually influences shoppers’ purchasing decisions,” Alvarez says.
“The first step needs to be for the industry to start talking to the rest of the food chain about the importance of welfare, which is something European pork and farm associations could help with, too.”
New ways of thinking
Jones says support from China’s government for improving welfare should also help drive change in consumer and food chain perceptions around it, and may even lead to changes in welfare legislation in the future.
“We have had officials come to the awards, and we know there is support there by allowing ICCAW to operate,” she says.
At the moment, though, producers still have a lot to learn in terms of basic herd health, management, husbandry and housing, and there is some confusion around some of the production rules that could help welfare. For example, Jones says, there is some movement toward using anesthetics for castration and there is also some discussion of replacing castration with a vaccine that reduces boar taint and sexual behavior by temporarily delaying puberty in male pigs. According to Jones, however, the focus at this early stage is on educating the market on what the vaccine is and how it works.
“Things are improving and producers are capable of finding solutions to the problems they have in China. They just need to get thinking about their animals in a different way.”
What are the Good Pig Production Awards?
The Good Pig Production Awards recognize pig producers and agricultural businesses in China that have more than 300 sows and meet five basic requirements:
- Provide a good environment for the pigs, including reasonable density, comfortable temperatures, dry pen floors, good air quality, clean drinking water and safe feed.
- No sow stalls (except between weaning and up to 30 days after insemination).
- Surgical castration should be avoided. If carried out, castration should be within 7 days of birth, ideally with analgesic. If the castration is carried out after 7 days, analgesic must be provided.
- No high copper or zinc added to the daily ration. Withdrawal times must be followed after administration of antibiotics.
- No hormone, antibiotics, high metal or mycotoxin residues detected from the pork.
To receive an award, producers must also commit to achieving one or more of the following:
- No tail docking
- No teeth clipping
- No sow stalls or farrowing crates
- Appropriate manipulable material (slatted floors without bedding or mats are not acceptable).
For more information, visit ciwf.cn