Widespread proposals are afoot within the European Union (E.U.) to strengthen and harmonize welfare standards affecting the production of all livestock.

Europe, particularly Sweden and Britain, is much further down the welfare route — especially in pig production — than is the United States. The new E.U. proposals (Table 1) are designed as a catch-up process for those E.U. states which seem to be dragging their heels.

Do these new proposals matter to America? Sure, very much so. If your hog industry continues to reshape itself as it has done so impressively over the past five years — within the next five or so years, America will need the huge, 15-nation European export market (which is already a larger one than the whole of your own domestic market), to help dispose of surpluses. And the E.U. still has five more eastern European nations clamoring to join the club.

America can produce good pork. It can produce cheap pork. But because it's not produced to European Commission Directives on Welfare, you won't have much chance of securing some of this market. Now the future barriers look even higher.

Protectionism?

“Aha,” I hear you say. “This is a smart bit of protectionism by these guys.” It is not — at least not directly or even intentionally, for two reasons.

Tightening standards in food production methods is a vote-winner. Consumers in countries like Sweden, Germany, Britain, Denmark and, increasingly, France are very conscious that all meat they buy should be clean, wholesome and produced to certain high standards. This also includes the welfare and comfort of the animals. As this legislation/regulation develops, this will increasingly close the door to “back-door” meat importation. The recent foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) disaster in Britain, which almost certainly started this way, has really alerted the public to its dangers. For example, 55% of British consumers said that animal welfare was more important to them after the FMD outbreak, than it was before. And only one day after the first case of BSE (a totally different disease) was announced in Germany, beef consumption dropped 60%.

Supermarket Actions

In the more advanced E.U. nations, except for France, the supermarkets sell 85% of the pork, and it is likely France is moving that way. Many large retailers already have a list of production constraints and will only buy from their own farmer-suppliers or from imported sources which meet these self-imposed standards. They have the inspectors to enforce it, too. At present, American pork does not meet these stipulations in the way it is produced in a variety of major areas.

Of course, business chains are very much influenced by raw material price — and if your export price is cheap enough, who knows if and how they'll try to move the goalposts.

But the legislative control from the E.U. Central Directive could discourage these short-term initiatives, which is why America, if it wants a share of our pork market in the future, should take note of the new proposals summarized in Table 1.

Americans have said to me blithely — “John, if our pork's cheap enough — and yours is so expensive by comparison — we'll find a way!” Sorry, but I don't think you will!

You are going to need “designer pork” for our market. Had you better start acting now?

Table 1. Proposals by the E.U. Commission (May 2001)
Category Proposal
Sow stalls Banned, but sows may be kept in individual pens for four weeks after service, but they must be able to turn around.
Farrowing crates Recommends more research into alternatives before a ban is proposed.
Bedding and rooting All pigs to have permanent access to high fiber food for investigation and manipulation. At present, slats are frowned on, but there is no proposal to ban them.
Castration, tail docking, tooth clipping, ear notching Castration to be banned. Tail docking and ear notching strictly on the basis of veterinary advice. Tooth clipping and grinding under discussion.
Stock people High level of general training with an increased emphasis on welfare. Licensing stock keepers is under discussion.
Weaning The current legal minimum age is 21 days. Proposal that it should be harmonized at 28 days.
Feed Additives All additives suspected of causing resistance to human disorders to be banned, with a constant review of existing and new products in all other usage areas. Much tighter control of drug use on farm with full usage records.
Note: These are proposed legislation for all E.U. hog producers. If made European law, it would be extremely unlikely that imports would be allowed which fail to meet some or all of these criteria. The time scale is likely to be from five to 10 years hence; some sooner (like feed additives), some later (like stalls).