The judgement released by High Court justice Helen Cull directed the Minister of Agriculture to consider recommending new regulations phasing out the use of farrowing crates and mating stalls and consider making such changes as are necessary to minimum standards.
Cull ruled the standards, introduced in 2018, had bypassed earlier law changes designed to phase out the use of farrowing crates and mating stalls for pigs.
The case was brought to the court by the New Zealand Animal Law Association (NZALA) and animal welfare group SAFE.
The two groups sought a judicial review of the Animal Welfare Act’s regulations for the use of farrowing crates and mating stalls for sows.
The 2018 standards were introduced by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor after receiving advice from the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC).
These standards did not include a timeframe to phase out crates and stalls usage and allowed the practice to continue.
A disappointed NZ Pork chief executive David Baines says the judgement found failings with the NAWAC process in developing the regulations and standards.
“The judge’s scope was to review the legal process that was undertaken to develop regulations and codes of welfare rather than specifically addressing the use of indoor farrowing systems,” he said.
Baines says if a decision was taken to remove farrowing systems, then he expected the Government to apply the same production requirements to imported pork, which made up 60% of the pork consumed in NZ.
“In line with other countries that have been required to limit the use of farrowing crates, we would also expect financial support for affected farmers to complete the necessary changes to facilities and to also compensate farmers for the loss of productivity that will ensue,” he said.
“Imported pork comes from many countries whose animal welfare standards are lower than in NZ, and in some cases, their practices are illegal in this country.”
There are around 100 commercial pig farmers in NZ, with half of the commercial sow herd on indoor farms, most with farrowing crates.
Less than 3% of the indoor commercial herd used indoor farrowing pens, which used a farrowing crate temporarily for the first few days after a sow farrows.
Just under half of the commercial sow herd is outdoor-based, mostly using individual huts for farrowing and lactation.
There are also hybrid systems, such as outdoor-based farms, that use farrowing crates or indoor pens in early lactation, before transitioning sows and piglets to individual huts outdoors.
Baines says changing to an alternative system would not be without challenges.
“They are more expensive to install as they have a larger footprint. This means that an existing building that currently has farrowing crates would accommodate fewer sows if it was converted to farrowing pens,” he said.
A farm that cannot simultaneously invest in converting the existing systems as well as constructing new infrastructure in order to retain their current herd size would likely have to decrease the number of sows.
He says this would reduce the number of pigs produced per year and that it was difficult to say what the future of these farms will be.
“Some farmers that may not have a clear succession plan will certainly struggle to justify the expenditure and choose to exit pig farming. Given the NZ pork industry is already very small and with half potentially being affected, this would have a major impact,” he said.
Baines described farrowing systems as maternity wards for sows.
“They support the survival of as many well-grown healthy piglets as possible, whilst also meeting the needs of the sow,” he said.
“In 2016, NAWAC concluded that the use of farrowing crates was the best system available to meet the welfare needs of the piglets and the sow.
“Piglet crushing is a welfare issue, and this system is the most effective at protecting piglets from being crushed by their mothers. This is why alternative indoor systems, such as farrowing pens, have not been widely adopted by farmers in any country, due to lower piglet survival.”
Sows spent a maximum of 28 days in indoor farrowing systems after giving birth and typically spent 80% of their time in social groups when not in a farrowing system.
Worldwide, farrowing crates are the most common system used to house sows and piglets until piglets are weaned. No country has completely banned their use, he says.
SAFE chief Debra Ashton says the case was about giving mother pigs the freedom to live more natural lives and respecting them as sentient, instead of treating them as simply “units of production.”
NZALA’s president Saar Cohen says the judgment raises serious concerns about NAWAC’s conduct.
“At best, they lacked proper understanding of their legal duties and were let down by MPI’s legal advisors,” he said.
“At worst, NAWAC acted in bad faith by letting economic factors and industry pressure outweigh their duty as scientists and independent advisors. Worst of all for NAWAC, they caused a major embarrassment to the Minister who relied on their advice without question.”
O’Connor had no comment on the ruling.