When did you last spot a pig roaming in a paddock when driving through the countryside?
Sourcing truly free range or organic pork products can be a tad challenging, but we reckon it’s worth the effort, especially when learning that pigs are one of the most poorly treated animals here in Australia, with over 90% of pork products coming from factory farms where pigs never get to go outdoors and pregnant sows are often confined in sow stalls* and farrowing crates they cannot even turn around in.
Pork goes by many aliases and is a ‘filler’ in many products: ham, salami, prosciutto, bacon, sausages, bolognaise, frankfurts, crackling, dim sims, dumplings… the list goes on. It can creep into your diet more than you think, so it pays to be vigilant.
Our top tip is to eat pork sparingly and when you do, go to the effort of sourcing it from truly free range producers. It may be a tad pricier, but the taste is far superior, you’ll need less and you can be confident that the pigs had a better life.
* The use of sow stalls in Australia is being phased out between April and July 2017 and is being replaced with individual stalls that are slightly bigger or group housing stalls. See below for more detail.
What is free range?
When it comes to pork, free-range means the pigs are free to roam outdoors in paddocks with access to huts and shelter, from the day they are born until slaughter. There can be no sow stalls or farrowing crates. In other words, free-range pigs are happier pigs.
Unfortunately there is currently no legal definition of free-range for pigs in Australia, however late last year the ACCC cracked down on misuse of the term, which is a positive step in making our food system a little more transparent (more on this below).
Where to buy pork – a hierarchy
We’d suggest you seek out pork products in this order according to what is available to you.
1. Direct from the free-range or organic farmer
At a farmers’ market or at the farm-gate. You can ask as many questions as you like and even visit the farm if you ask really nicely.
The Flavour Crusader has a wonderful state-based list of free range producers.
A little note on colour: When exposed to air, meat actually discolours to a grey/brown colour. Preservatives are then used to make it that appealing rosy-pink colour we’re used to seeing in ham. If you want your smallgoods or Christmas feast preservative free, ask for nitrate and nitrite-free.
2. From a free-range/organic butcher
Check out our Ethical Meat Directory for a good start.
3. From a supermarket or retailer
It can sometimes be hard to find free range options at large retailers, so use our ‘What to look for in labelling’ guide below.
4. Remember, if you don’t know where it came from, eat veg instead!
What to look for in labelling and other terms to understand
Food labels can be a minefield, with marketing lingo taking priority over the truth. Here is a list of labels to look for, terms that are used and what they mean.
Terms to understand when buying pork
According to Australian Pork Limited, a sow stall (also known as a gestation stall) is a highly confining type of indoor housing that pregnant pigs on some farms are kept in. A sow stall is roughly the length and width of a fully grown sow (a female breeding pig), and does not allow the sow to turn around or leave. The sow is traditionally housed in a stall for some or all of her pregnancy, which lasts for approximately 115 days.
Once the sow has had her litter she is often moved to an even smaller farrowing crate (see below) for around six weeks before being weaned and impregnated once again.
In Australia this type of stall is being phased out between April and July of 2017 and is being replaced by slightly larger individual pens or ‘Group or Loose Housing’ arrangements (see below).
Sow Stall Free
Approved individual housing under new | Group or Loose Housing in an intensive indoor farming system
This is a term used to indicate that old sow stalls are no longer used in that farming system. They have been replaced with either slightly larger individual stalls or ‘Group’ or ‘Loose Housing’ arrangements.
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Pigs states that all new sow gestation stall installations be 0.6 m wide and 2.2 m in length for individual sows (roughly the length of an 8 seater dining table, but narrower in width). The ‘extra length’ in the stall dimensions set by the Code was proposed to allow a standing sow to take a step forward or backward, in relation to her nearby herd-mates, thereby averting the negative behavioural stress caused by frustrated dominance/submission interactions.
A further ‘improvement’ states that a sow must not be kept in stalls for more than six weeks of any one gestation except under exceptional circumstances (previously it could be for her entire pregnancy at around 115 days).
At Sustainable Table we believe it may be misleading and confusing to consumers to use the term Sow Stall Free as it gives people the impression that the pigs are free to roam, when they are still housed indoors for their entire lives with marginally better living conditions.
Coles Sow Stall Free
According to the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Pigs, Coles own brand Sow Stall Free pork products have a slightly higher animal welfare code than the broad definition of Sow Stall Free.
Sow and gilt pens must:
- Be large enough for pigs to turn around.
- Be a minimum of 3.6 m2 excluding drains but including slats.
- Have sufficient space to allow pigs to lay down with limbs fully extended; AND
- Sows and gilts in group housing must have a minimum lying area of 1.5 m2.
Group or Loose Housing
According to Australian Pork Limited, Loose housing is a broad term which encompasses a range of alternatives to sow stalls. Any loose housing must provide a sow with freedom of movement – she must be able to turn around and extend her limbs. Most loose housing systems involve keeping the sows in groups, although individual pens are permitted, as long as they allow “freedom of movement”.
Group and Loose Housing is provided indoors in sheds where pigs do not have access to the outdoors.
Numbers can range from small groups of four to eight sows, where sows are mixed
once and stay together from mixing until farrrowing, through to batch groups of 20-50 sows, to large dynamic groups of 100-500 sows, in which the composition changes weekly as sows are added post-mating, and removed pre-farrowing. A minimum of 1.4 square metres per sow is required in the Code.
Sow confined to a farrowing crate. Image left Aussie Pig Farmers, Image Right Animals Australia
According to the Australia Pork website
a ‘farrowing crate is an enclosure in which a sow “farrows” (gives birth) and then remains with her litter, typically for around four weeks. A farrowing crate is designed to ‘protect piglets’ from being crushed by their mother, which can be a common occurrence in all types of pig farming. Farrowing crates are routinely used in the Australian pork industry (and internationally) to prevent piglet deaths, and farms which are “sow stall free” may use farrowing crates to protect piglets.’
‘While the industry has invested a significant amount of money in research looking at alternatives to the farrowing crate over many years, this research has not revealed anything that maintains comparable piglet survival as the farrowing crate.’
There is often consumer confusion about the difference between a farrowing crate and a sow stall, which may lead many to believe they are one and the same and thus a sow stall free environment is a less restrictive one. The images supplied of farrowing crates illustrate just how confined and uncomfortable it must be for the mother sow who cannot turn around nor interact with her young, all in the name of increasing piglet survival for overall profit.
Once a mother sow has been weaned from her young after 4-6 weeks she will be removed from the farrowing crate, re-impregnated and returned to individual or loose housing for the cycle to start again.
A round up of the facts about factory farming
Pigs – A summary of the intensive pork industry (factory farming):
- 4-5 million pigs are slaughtered in Australia for human consumption each year
- There are over 1,500 factory pig farms throughout Australia that produce a staggering 90% of Australia’s pork products. You may have seen the pink logo advertising Australian pork, but this does not mean it is free range unless specifically stated (see ‘What to look for in labelling’ above).
- In Australia, the majority of the 300,000 female breeding pigs (sows) are kept inside sheds continually pregnant and confined, either in individual stalls or loose housing.
- As the mother pig draws closer to giving birth, she is moved to an even smaller farrowing crate usually for around 4-6 weeks, which is designed to allow piglets to suckle while restricting movement of the sow and interaction with her young. This has been developed by industry to limit piglet death through accidentally crushing by its’ mother, however, it seems extremely inhumane to restrict a mother sow so severely for the entire period she is suckling her young.
- Once born, piglets often have their teeth clipped, their tails cut off and are castrated without pain relief.
- A mother pig has her young removed at 3-4 weeks of age. She is then impregnated again, and the cycle continues until her body can stand no more. At that point she will be sent to slaughter.