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Buy British to pay the price for better animal welfare

It is reckoned that about 40% of bacon and sausages currently consumed in Europe are illegal.

Now before any readers rush to throw their breakfast in the bin for fear of being arrested, let me explain.

Your local butcher is not knowingly part of a criminal ring. New European Union animal welfare legislation that came into force on January 1 made it illegal to confine sows in individual metal cages, known as sow stalls. Despite having had more than a decade to prepare for this new legislation, it is reckoned about 40% of EU pig production is still coming from farms that keep pigs illegally in stalls.

It has been estimated by some sad nerd that every hour the EU is producing six million illegal sausages, four million illegal bacon rashers, 640,000 illegal pork pies and 800,000 illegal pork chops. All that criminal activity is in addition to the 160,000 rolled shoulders and 80,000 leg joints that are illegally butchered every hour.

With so much criminality going on in the EU, it is little wonder the police are powerless to intervene. The first hour of a crackdown would fill all of Europe's prisons to overflowing.

While many of Europe's farmers continue to flout the law, British farmers are squeaky clean. Unilateral legislation by a former Conservative government meant that British pig farmers had to quit using stalls by January 2009. Since then, the UK national pig herd has halved as producers struggled to maintain productivity and repay heavy conversion costs. That's the price you pay when you convert to a more expensive system of production, but your competitors don't.

While the UK, Luxembourg, Estonia, Austria and Sweden are reckoned to be 100% compliant with the new legislation, big pig-producing countries such as France are only 33% compliant, Belgium 45%, Portugal 46% and Germany 48%. The Netherlands are 63% compliant, Italy 69%, Spain 70%, while Denmark has managed to get 85% of its farmers to operate to the new standards.

The argument for outlawing stalls was similar to that for introducing the welfare of laying hens directive (WLHD) that banned keeping hens in small battery cages. It's all to do with giving animals more freedom of movement.

Sadly, the slow uptake of the pig welfare legislation is a re-run of what happened with WLHD – despite plenty of warning, many countries were not fully compliant by the January 1, 2012, deadline that banned battery cages. That led to the consumption of a lot of illegal eggs last year, although the situation wasn't as bad as with sow stalls and has improved a lot recently.

It is right and proper we keep all our farm animals in the best environments possible that allow them plenty of freedom of movement and the best of welfare. Such production systems are more expensive – that's why cheap and nasty intensive systems were developed – so it is only right that those who adopt higher welfare standards are protected from the unfair competition from, cheaper, more intensive systems.

Sadly, while many consumers pay lip service to the need for better animal welfare, given the choice, they invariably purchase on price. Yes, when comparing the price of sausages, bacon or eggs from intensive systems to those from welfare-friendly systems, hard-pressed consumers see it as a "no-brainer" and select the cheapest.

UK retailers will always continue to stock competitively priced goods until the supply dries up.

The reality is that rather than emanating from any popular mass movement, a lot of recent animal welfare legislation is being promoted and forced through by small, vociferous lobbies that have the ears of influential politicians.

In the absence of consumers forcing compliance by voting with their purses, it is left to the EU legislative process to whip non-compliant farmers in to line.

So long as every farmer in the EU is operating on a level playing field, and we don't import animal products from non-EU countries that operate to lower standards, I can see nothing wrong with improving our animal welfare.

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