Photo of pigs in a cage
Pigs are extremely bright, sensitive animals whose health and wellbeing is compromised by keeping them in crates and pens [Image: Titanium22 - Wikimedia Commons]

The outrageous cost of factory farmed meat

11 October, 2012

The film Pig Business graphically illustrated where our bacon and other pork products come from and the damage that intensive farming can do to the environment, the animals and our health. In this article Alastair Kenneil from the Pig Business campaign explains why the film’s message continues to be so important and relevant and what we need to do  as consumers to help reject this shocking and unacceptable method of food production.

In the documentary Pig Business, eco-campaigner Tracy Worcester discovers the true price of cheap imported pork from intensive farms that cause misery among the animals, threaten human health with toxic waste and antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’, and destroy rural communities by forcing traditional farmers out of business.

Robert Kennedy Jnr explains that these are ‘externalised’ costs not paid by the intensive farm companies, but borne by suffering animals, sickness of local residents, pollution of the environment and destruction of rural communities. If these costs were paid by the intensive producers their meat wouldn’t be ‘cheap’ and higher welfare farms would out-compete them.

The UK welfare laws are among the highest in Europe, and yet meat continues to be imported from farms in Europe that use methods that are illegal in the UK. British farmers cannot compete; 50% of the UK pig herd has been lost in the past 12 years, farmers have lost their livelihoods and communities have been destroyed.

This can be changed if we don’t import, or buy, intensively produced pork. Before he became prime Minister, David Cameron said at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2008, ‘Just as we don’t accept cars that aren’t meeting our emission standards, so we shouldn’t accept food that doesn’t meet our welfare standards.’

Now that he is in power, his government has done nothing but bow to the needs of big business.

Law breakers

Factory pig companies save money by breaking welfare laws. Compassion in World Farming found that in five European countries over 70% of farms visited were failing to obey the  EU Pig Welfare Directive, which requires that from 2003 all pigs have straw or similar material in their pens, and are not tail docked.

In January 2013 the long awaited ban on sow stalls will come into force, although it is not a complete ban – factory farms will be allowed to confine pregnant sows in narrow metal cages for around two months a year, and in farrowing crates in which they cannot turn around for a further two months. This is a dreadfully cruel confinement for such sensitive animals.

Gestation crates

‘Gestatation crates’ are cruel and uncomfortable for pregnant sows [Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a so called free-trade economy, these rules are so often ignored by farmers struggling to compete with imports from countries with cheaper labour. Factory farmers in Italy are building sow stall systems and in France many factory farms have made no preparations to comply with the EU Directive.

The silence of the labels

Across the EU there is no information on package labels that tells consumers whether pork was raised on a factory farm or not. As consumers become increasingly horrified by the cruelty that animals endure in factory farms, they need proper labelling to avoid buying low welfare products.

The best that the previous and present UK governments have come up with is a voluntary code for country of origin labelling. UK consumers who want to avoid pork from factory farms in the UK or abroad should look for Outdoor Reared, Outdoor Bred, Free Range or organic labels.

Consumers want compassionately reared meat

There are good reasons not to buy factory farmed pork:

  • Overcrowding causes illness in pigs, treated with antibiotics that increase antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’.
  • Meat from free-range pigs has more healthy 0mega-3 fats, more iron and more vitamin E than meat from intensively raised pigs.
  • Buying organic or free-range pork supports healthy and humane British farms.
  • Factory farmed pigs are fed with genetically modified soy or corn, often from cleared rainforests in South America.
  • The waste from factory farms pollutes the water and sickens nearby residents.

In the UK, consumers have taken this message on board and are already leading the move towards high welfare products, typically from smaller UK farms. Sales of RSPCA certified Freedom Food pork, sausages, bacon and cooked ham increased by 64% in 2010, reflecting increasing concern for animal welfare among consumers, now aware of the horrifying realities of factory pig farming.

The most recent Freedom Food Impact Report shows that in the last 5 years in response to consumer demand,, the number of pigs reared under Freedom Food has grown nearly 84 % – from 1.4m in 2006 to 2.7m in 2011 – about 28 per cent of all UK pig production.

Antibiotic resistance

The EU system relies on the routine use of antibiotics to keep the animals alive in the contagious overcrowded barns. This has been a major cause of increasing numbers of diseases becoming resistant to antibiotics and passing from pigs to humans. The system also led to the emergence of the H1N1 (Swine Flu) virus.

A 2012 report published in the Netherlands found that 38% of factory farmed pigs were carrying the pig strain of MRSA that can pass from pigs to humans. For pigs raised on organic, high welfare farms the figure was only 3%. INni another study MRSA was found in 11% of fresh pork sampled in Dutch supermarkets.

Not just in the EU

This is not just a UK or European problem. There is growing concern that the routine use of antibiotics in factory farms is leading to the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria which threaten human health. In the EU the use of antibiotics and growth promoters was banned in 2006 but many farmers find ways around the law by using antibiotics for ‘health’ reasons and their use is still routine in America.

The US the Pew Commission Report on Industrial Farm Animal Production is a comprehensive indictment of the system, backed by extensive science and research.

The factory farm system relies on the routine use of antibiotics. To accelerate growth, piglets are weaned before their immune system has had a chance to develop, and without antibiotics many would die.

It’s estimated that around  50% of antibiotics used in the UK, and 64%  of antibiotics used on farms, are given to pigs. These are the same as, or closely related to, medically important antibiotics used in human medicine and are becoming ineffective as more disease-causing bacteria become resistant.

A threat to human health

The European Food Safety Authority has published a review that shows that for certain bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter, most antibiotic resistance in human infections comes from farm-animal antibiotic use. In 2010 Smithfield shareholders  expressed their concern about routine antibiotic use in a Shareholder Resolution noting that “Scientific studies confirm that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans.”

A report published in 2011 in the USA confirms that MRSA and other antibiotic resistant bacteria can be spread from animals to humans by flies and cockroaches. The research showed that strains found in the intestines of pigs were the same as were found on flies which can fly several kilometres and can spread the bacteria each time they land on food.

Just this week a joint study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and UV University Medical Center in Amsterdam concluded that living near livestock increases the risk of acquiring methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The bacterium lodges in the nasal passages and from there is easily spread to other humans. They further note that because of the density and scale of pig farming in the US such findings have significant implication for the health of US citizens.

GMOs rear their ugly head – again

The feed given to intensively reared pigs is also causing significant long term problems. In April 2011 Ib Borup Pedersen, a Danish farmer concerned with the ill health and deformities of his indoor, intensive herd of pigs, replaced the GM soya he had been using as feed with non-GM soy.

Within two days diarrhoea, which had been killing up to 30% of his piglets, cleared up and the piglets became sturdier. Sow deaths from bloat and ulcers stopped completely, and during the year following the conversion to non-GM feed his use of antibiotics dropped by half. The savings in his vet and medicine bills far outweighed the extra cost of non-GM feed.

Mr Pedersen believes that the high rate of dead and deformed piglets on farms using GM soya is caused by residues of glyphosate in the feed. The soya is genetically modified to be immune to the glyphosate based herbicide Roundup, which is sprayed several times on the soy crop to kill weeds. Reports indicate that the glyphosate residues change the microflora and allow Clostridia bacterium to grow in the animals’ gut causing fatal bloat and diarrhoea.

Weeds are now becoming resistant to Roundup so the spraying has to be increased leading to more residues on the crop, a vicious cycle that can only be broken by returning to non-GM crops and using natural herbicides.

Pig Business is everyone’s business

Pig Business is now being made in country-specific versions where existing campaigns can use the film as a tool in their efforts to ban new factory farms, or close existing factory farms.

In Hungary the film shows how local residents prevented the building of two huge foreign owned farms by refusing to allow the waste to be spread on their land.

In Romania, the film was widely shown and the sales of the biggest factory pork producer dropped by 50%.

Pig Business will be filming this winter in the Perote valley in Mexico where there is a huge concentration of factory farms jointly owned by Smithfield Foods of America and which was the epicentre of the swine flu pandemic of 2010. Locals are still being affected by flies that spread disease from rotting pig carcasses, and by the contaminated water.

In Chile, where Pig Business will be filming in January, the government has ordered the closure of one of the world’s biggest factory pig farms after the local residents, sickened by toxic waste in the air and water, prevented feed lorries from approaching the site. Local activists asked Pig Business to film the events to reach a worldwide audience.

Say no to pig mega-farms in the UK

In the UK there are plans to build a 25,000 pig mega- farm in Foston in Derbyshire which would be less than 100 metres from residential buildings.  There have been over 20,000 objections so far, locals are up in arms and the District Council unanimously voted in opposition to the plans. The decision is now with the County Council.

We urge everyone in the UK to sign our petition to keep up the pressure and stop the rise of factory farming in the UK.

All over the world people are taking action against a system that degrades the environment and shames us all. Taking back power from the industrial farming system is really a matter of choice, and Pig Business encourages us to buy high welfare pork and support small scale, healthy and humane farming that has been providing wholesome food for generations, preserving landscapes and keeping alive the traditions of the countryside.


  • Pig Business is a film and campaign that supports people across the world whore campaigning against factory pig farming, a system that abuses animals, threatens our health by overusing antibiotics, destroys rural communities, and pollutes the air and water. You can watch the trailer for the film here