Only in the meat industry does less killing become a crisis. A shortage of butchers in the UK has left slaughterhouses operating at decreased capacity, creating a situation described by the National Pig Association (NPA) as an “acute welfare disaster.”
Pigs who would otherwise have been slaughtered for their flesh have had to be kept alive on farms and are now too large for abattoirs to handle. But their future does not look bright. A lack of space has caused farmers to start killing pigs themselves and discarding the remains.
“We have moved to stage two,” Zoe Davies, Chief Executive of the NPA, told the Guardian. “Stage one was contingency planning and putting pigs in temporary accommodation. Stage two, we have not got any more space, and pigs are growing, there are more on farms than we can manage.”
Around 600 pigs have so far been killed, according to the National Pigs Association. The death toll is expected to rise to between 120,000 and 150,000 as the mass killing begins in the coming weeks.
Is This Really a Welfare Crisis?
Taking a healthy pig’s life and simply discarding their body shows a real lack of respect for the value of animal lives. But to the pigs themselves, the purpose for which they are killed makes little difference.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 last week, Rob Mutimer, chair of the NPA, said that culling pigs “involves either shooting them on the farm or taking them to an abattoir and disposing of them in a skip.” While the shooting of pigs is a welfare concern, so is everyday slaughter. Shortages of carbon dioxide have highlighted the fact that killing pigs with gas is still standard practice in the UK. This casts doubt on claims that the slaughterhouse crisis is harming animals any more than business as usual.
“The reality is that pig farming is rotten to the core,” Claire Palmer, founder of nonprofit group Animal Justice Project, told Sentient Media. “The backup due to a shortage of gas and lack of workers only means less pigs meet their grisly deaths in gas chambers where it can take up to a minute for these animals to fall unconscious so they can have their throats cut. One can only imagine the sheer fear and agony that pigs experience as their insides are literally burnt out with noxious gas.”
When pigs are killed on farms, as tragic as it is, they don’t have to endure the misery of transport and agony of gas chambers, Palmer points out.
“This is just one consequence of an already rotten industry that puts profit before anything else,” she said.
Pigs or Profit?
The British pork industry slaughters more than 10 million healthy pigs each year. So why are people now upset about the killing of a few thousand? “These animals won’t go into the food chain, they will either be rendered or sent for incineration,” Mutimer told BBC Radio 4. “It is an absolute travesty.”
Concerns over the waste of what farmers see as good protein overlooks the fact that the industry is already wasteful. Households in the UK discard 240,000 tonnes of edible meat each year, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of pigs and other livestock die for nothing.
This will be the first time on record for the mass killing of farmed animals in the UK to have been caused by labor shortages. “To actually then kill something that’s perfectly healthy to then go in the bin—it’s just criminal,” NPA Chief Executive Dr. Zoe Davies told Sky News.
But the industry has long been killing unprofitable animals. “There is nothing new about this ‘welfare crisis,’ pig farmers already kill unwanted piglets by smashing them against concrete—something that is perfectly legal in the UK,” says Palmer. “And remember of course, fattened pigs who do make it to the gas chambers are still children themselves—just six months old.”
The pork industry does not seem to be as concerned about pigs as it is about profit. “It is a vile industry driven by profit and greed. Nothing to do with compassion, kindness, or what humanity should look like,” says Palmer.
Although the labor shortage, which is largely due to European workers having left the UK following its exit from the European Union, has been felt across other industries, the nature of a butcher’s job sets the role apart from other vacancies. Working in a slaughterhouse needs more than just skill. It requires a certain level of detachment. One pig farmer told Farmers Weekly, “If I have to kill healthy pigs on my farm, I’m not sure I could do it. I’d rather let them go free in the woods. I’d certainly never be a pig farmer again.”
Perhaps the real issue is not the shortage of butchers, but the killing of animals. “This entire, vile industry needs total abolition, and it needs it now,” says Palmer.
A Plant-Based Future?
The UK food system is rooted in animal agriculture, but it doesn’t have to be. Earlier this year, The Vegan Society published Planting Value in the Food System, a report outlining its vision for a plant-based future.
Dr. Alex Lockwood, author of the report and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland specializing in plant-based food policy, said in a statement, “Food poverty, insecurity, low paid jobs and disastrous environmental impacts all flow from the system we currently have—an animal-based agriculture that is out of date. If starting from a blank sheet of paper, no one would design the system we currently have, and certainly not those who love animals.”
The report proposes ambitious new legislation to set the UK on a path to one day eliminate animal products from its food system. This includes a Food Sustainability Bill which covers areas such as health, food poverty, and climate justice, and a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill to ensure policy decisions are made in light of future needs.
“Almost everyone involved in food and farming across the UK accepts that significant transformation is necessary if we are to have a food system fit for the future,” said Lockwood.
Hannah is a freelance journalist based in Scotland. She writes to raise awareness of animal cruelty and exploitation.