Happier pigs in Denmark in the future

Who is responsible for ensuring animal welfare for Danish pigs? Is it the swine industry, the retailers or the consumers? According to a group of researchers, the road to better conditions in piggeries is long. But there is a good chance that we will get there.

2015.04.27 | Julia Rolsted Stacey

Danish politicians have been somewhat reluctant when it comes to issuing requirements to improve the conditions for sows in Danish piggeries. Should they be able to move around freely their entire lives and not just when they are pregnant? Danish politicians have had a specific mantra that the market itself should promote animal welfare improvements – but can that be expected from the market?

A lot of people want pigs to be happier, whereas others are not particularly worried about animal welfare. There is almost always a but in the industry’s discussions of animal welfare. A lot of the involved players have good intentions, but better conditions cost money, and there are financial matters to be considered. Such are the results of a new report about market-driven animal welfare prepared by researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University.

Consumers of the future will demand increased animal welfare. So says Associate Professor Lars Esbjerg from the research centre MAPP at Aarhus BSS, who is one of the authors behind the report. He predicts a development towards increased animal welfare in Denmark, but it is going to take time. According to Lars Esbjerg, getting consumers to purchase more animal welfare meat requires a significant change in the consumers’ attitudes.

“Retailers need to follow the development closely. The industry must stand out more. It’s not sustainable to focus on cheap pork chops. The consumers of the future are prepared to take responsibility for their own actions and choices, which means that they will want to buy more pork that has been produced under animal-friendly conditions,” says Lars Esbjerg.

The focal point of the report has been to investigate the possibilities for increasing animal welfare in Danish piggeries based on requests by the market.

The new knowledge is highly relevant. Lars Esbjerg will be presenting his research at the international conference “Improving pig welfare - what are the ways forward?”, which takes place in Copenhagen on 29-30 April. The event is hosted by the Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Dan Jørgensen.

Fear of negative publicity increases focus on animal welfare

Lars Esbjerg and his research colleagues have examined the markets in Great Britain, Sweden, China, USA and Australia. Animal welfare is already an important point on the political agenda in Great Britain and Sweden, and it is increasing in importance in the US, Australia and China. 

According to Lars Esbjerg, the retailers in Great Britain and Sweden set high demands for animal welfare. Both countries have a long tradition of closely focusing on animal welfare, and there is a prevailing view that nationally produced pork is better than imported products. This is mainly due to the fact that these countries wish to safeguard their own production.

However, Lars Esbjerg also proceeds to explain that the reason why British retail chains strongly emphasise animal welfare is that they want to avoid negative publicity. The same tendency is evident in the US. Restaurant chains especially are worried about bad media coverage, which is the reason why they place emphasis on animal welfare. In Sweden, the situation is quite different. Animal welfare in Sweden is described as a matter of course and a natural part of the Swedish market practice.

The study shows that there is a general tendency among citizens in all these countries to want to take responsibility for their own actions. Lars Esbjerg explains that potential scandals prompt consumers to change their behaviour, but only short-term.

“It’s common knowledge that swine production is equal to mass production, and consumers therefore tend to revert to their old behaviour patterns once the given scandal has been forgotten,” he says. 

Close connection between the local and global market for pork

In Denmark, the majority of all retail chains consider price to be the most important competition parameter, and there is general consensus in the industry that welfare meat only constitutes a small market. The Danish pig industry also believes that initiatives towards the general improvement of animal welfare should only take place if they do not have a negative impact on the international competitiveness of the industry.

Lars Esbjerg predicts that in the future animal welfare will be a necessary focal point in order for the industry to remain competitive.

The researchers’ work shows that animal welfare is slowly gaining in importance in the Danish market. And according to Lars Esbjerg, the developments in the international markets will inevitably influence the value chain for Danish pigs. From an international perspective, the Danish production of pigs only takes up a small share of the global market.

“In Denmark, the pig industry has been very good at standardising its production, and they are in the lead in the area of food safety. But competitors in other countries follow right behind Denmark and have almost reached the same level as us. For that reason, the Danish pig industry is forced to consider the long-term perspective and must set itself apart in order to be able to make a difference in the future. The industry needs to adopt more competitive advantages in the future – and there is no way to escape animal welfare,” emphasises Lars Esbjerg.

Further information
Associate Professor Lars Esbjerg
Aarhus BSS
Tel.: +45 8716 5058
Email: lae@badm.au.dk 

Facts about the report

  • The Danish title of the project report is ”Løse søer — en tværfaglig undersøgelse af markedsdrevet dyrevelfærd” (Free range sows: an interdisciplinary study of market-driven animal welfare). The report has been prepared by researchers from the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen and MAPP at Aarhus University.
  • The project is financed by the Pig Levy Fund (Svineafgiftsfonden).
Agriculture and food