Defending the Indefensible: Pig Industry Veterinarian Speaks Out

Each time footage is released from pig farms, the industry manages to brush it off as an "isolated incident." But Dr. Alice Brough says these incidents are standard practice.

Young pigs at an industrial farm.
On assignment with The Guardian for their Farmed Animal series, I toured an industrial pig farm in a small town a few hours northeast of Bangkok, Thailand. Pigs were grouped together by age in concrete indoor pens. Unlike most industrial pig farms, these pens had built-in pools of water for the pigs to lay in. The farm held over 10,000 pigs in six separate buildings. Pig farming in Thailand can be classified into three systems. This farm would be described as a ‘Finishing System’, where weaned pigs are raised until they reach market weight. In many countries, that happens around six months of age.

Perspective Policy Reflections

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I decided to become a pig vet following many months of laboring on a farm in my teens, and I worked in the sector for four years after qualifying. I specifically chose to pursue this niche career because I couldn’t quite believe that the standard practices I was involved in were happening elsewhere and that the conditions were “normal.” I quickly realized after graduating that the farm I worked on as a teenager was actually comparatively good. I eventually abandoned my career because there was nothing I could do to challenge the system of industry bodies designed to maintain a status quo that was unjustifiably awful. I could not bear to shoot another pig due to someone else’s lack of care.

Nearly two years on, I am growing tired of receiving appalling footage of the pig industry. The footage is rightly recognized by the public as “shocking,” but not once have I been shocked by the findings; I have seen similar atrocities many times in person, and indeed, much worse. Each time footage is released, the industry responds with the same defensive comments, passing the worst off as “isolated incidents” and the exposed workers as “rogue agents.” Most recently, I was asked by Animal Equality to give an expert opinion on footage caught on undercover cameras at P&G Sleigh, Aberdeenshire.

An alarming nuance to this investigation is that the owner was a senior industry figure—he immediately resigned—on the board of Quality Meat Scotland (assurance scheme similar to Red Tractor). This reminded me of a 2019 investigation from animal group Surge into a dairy farm linked to the then Deputy President of the NFU. These should be the poster farms, and perhaps they are, but only when they know the cameras are present.

Our patterns of animal use in the UK are not dissimilar to nations we seem to look down on as cruel or inhumane. We frequently hear the assertion that the UK has some of the best welfare in the world—I have to burst that bubble. Not only is the comparison to other nations inaccurate, but it is also largely irrelevant, particularly when you consider that we import 60 percent of the pig meat consumed here. Does being better than atrocious automatically make us good? It certainly does not.

The many unflattering sides to animal agriculture are obscured by industry marketing schemes, paid adverts, and social media bots, all flooding the public sphere with inaccurate, or at best misleading, imagery more palatable to the consumer. Knowing the reality, it astonishes me how little this is questioned. The capturing of undercover footage on farms allows us an insight into the reality for animals; I just wish that it could cut through the deflective outpouring from an industry desperate to continue selling us a product.

The overwhelming public response to such footage is a call for the farm to be shut down and the perpetrators prosecuted. However, if this were to happen and extended to all farms with the same issues, there would be very few left.

We have legislation in place to protect the welfare of animals, yet we routinely breach this in the name of productivity and profit. The vast majority of pigs are routinely mutilated (tail docked, tooth clipped, castrated, or nose rung) to fit inappropriate systems, despite this technically being against the law in many cases. The majority of breeding sows are caged and unable to move for 5 weeks at a time, more than twice a year, despite this arguably being against the law. There are several countries managing without these interventions, and more following suit.

Excessive growth rates, early weaning, close confinement, and resulting poor hygiene create high levels of ‘production diseases’ like lameness, pneumonia, diarrhea, prolapses, and tail biting. As a result, the amount of antibiotics used in this sector almost equates to all others put together. Around 11 million pigs are slaughtered annually in the UK, but with the inherent stress, disease, injury, and neglect, around 1.8 million perish before they even make it to slaughter at 5-6 months old.

Aside from the entirely overlooked legislation breaches, the more overt welfare issues highlighted in undercover footage include disturbing human-animal interactions and woefully inadequate provision of basic care. Even these have been common findings for me on farms, despite my visits being prearranged. Inspectors or vets cannot be on the farm 365 days of the year, and in fact, it is usually only between one and four times a year. Note, this is not a criticism, there simply aren’t the resources to carry out unannounced inspections, which is why we must take the increasingly frequent undercover investigations seriously. What they show is not unusual, and if I could make it compulsory viewing in supermarket aisles, I would.

In response to the latest Animal Equality investigation, the industry has characteristically doubled down on defense and distraction tactics. The National Pig Association responded with a letter to The Times, which makes no comment about the actual findings, asserts how “proud” they are, and suggests they are “very happy to provide the facts and have nothing to hide.”

In direct contradiction is a quote from pig producer and NPA chair, Rob Mutimer, on 4th May in the Eastern Daily Press which expresses resentment of increased so-called bureaucracy. He states, “Political pressure on the industry in terms of environmental and welfare issues is as always unrelenting and the NPA is working extremely hard to influence and steer government towards sensible practical solutions.”

He goes on to discuss farrowing crates, “Around half of UK pig farmers use these at present so we must ensure that we avoid a repeat of the 1999 stall and tether ban” and registers concern over the way “Red Tractor audits have developed hugely over the past decade, becoming increasingly thorough and all-encompassing.” I feel that this speaks for itself; why would thorough auditing be a problem for pig producers? The NPA and other industry bodies work hard to prevent any inconvenient legislation on environmental or welfare issues, no matter the cost to pigs or the planet.

The physiological and psychological effects of farrowing crates are well documented but are overlooked by policymakers and defended by industry using cherry-picked statistics and well-rehearsed statements. A favorite phrase used in response to investigations is “vegan propaganda,” but somehow they fail to see the irony in their own flagrant use of misleading rhetoric and inaccurate depictions of the majority of UK farms.

The reason cited for the continued use of these archaic contraptions is to “protect baby piglets.” Research finds no statistical difference in piglet mortality between crated and uncrated sows, and logically it makes sense that a 250kg animal who can’t turn around would be more likely to crush her 1-2kg babies on a concrete floor due to weakened muscles, obscured vision and lack of a protective nest. Why are we still hearing this excuse? Why is nobody fact-checking? Why would an outdoor pig producer defend this? I am at a loss.

I am familiar with the generalized ripple of panic throughout the industry when a producer is subject to animal rights activity, but not once have I heard anyone admit to the problematic nature of pig farming that leads to such activity and looks for ways to improve the areas in question. The first thought is never for the pigs, it’s always reputation, and this equates to slow, if not non-existent, advances in welfare.

I am deeply saddened that nothing significant seems to have changed for pigs in the last 15 years since I first worked with them. The thought that anyone could be proud of what we do to one of the most intelligent animals on Earth makes me shudder. But if the industry is so proud of what they do, should they not be grateful for issues being brought to light that their self-regulation has failed to identify? I would suggest that proactively addressing the heinous ways in which animals are farmed might constitute much more effective damage control.

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