Only about half the pork and pork products consumed in Britain are derived from British pigs. So what, you might ask. The issue, and it’s a very serious one for British pig farmers, is that two thirds of the pork we import does not meet the minimum welfare standard laid down for pork produced in Britain. Effectively, it would be illegal if it were produced in the UK.
This story has its roots in legislation passed by the British government some six or seven years ago, which banned the use of stalls and tethers for pregnant sows.
While a minority of pig production in some other EU member states matches these UK mandatory standards, the fact remains that this legislation has added burdensome cost to British producers. It prevents them from competing on a level playing field in terms of production efficiencies with most European producers.
Perhaps the main reason why this should bother us all (in an era when ethical trading, corporate social responsibility and reputation management are all buzz phrases) is that we have a situation whereby our democratically elected government has decided that certain practices are not acceptable to us as a producing nation.
So why should these practices be acceptable to us as a consuming nation? And what obligations should this paradox impose upon our major retailers to have transparent sourcing policies?
The British Pig Executive is keen consumers should be able to make an informed decision about their purchases. It launched the Quality Standard Mark for pigmeat in 1999 to identify pork derived from independently audited Quality Assured systems, including the absence of stalls and tethers. BPEX has now unveiled a new-look mark, supported by a national press campaign that broke last weekend.
The mark has achieved higher levels of consumer recognition than nearly all other farm assurance marks and BPEX hopes it can exploit this recognition so the mark acts as a point-of-purchase prompt.
In research conducted in 2004, 92% of adults agreed it was important that pork products from abroad should be produced to the quality assurance standards that apply in the UK. These were supermarket shoppers and retailers should not dismiss these concerns nor focus solely on price.
One BPEX stakeholder, the National Pig
Association, has asked retailers to clarify which of their pork products are sourced to equivalent UK standards. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is a whiff of hypocrisy about some retailers’ responses.
A common response is that their own-label pork is indeed sourced either from Britain or to equivalent UK standards. But the appearance on their shelves of tertiary brands of fresh pork would lead a cynic to believe they have found a convenient way to sell cheap pork from farming systems which would be illegal in the UK, while maintaining the notional ethical purity of their own-label sourcing.
Criticism of BPEX’s ad campaign has been voiced by pig producer organisations abroad because it could affect consumption as a whole. But they forget that during the past six months BPEX has invested nearly four times the amount it has spent on advertising the Quality Standard Mark on a campaign to promote the health benefits of pork to consumers. And beneficiaries may be foreign producers who do not contribute to BPEX funds.
BPEX urges UK retailers to be open about their sourcing practices. It applauds foreign producers who have established UK production specifications and retailers who insist on their suppliers sourcing pigmeat from such systems. Our best retailers audit their supply chains to confirm their integrity.
Those who don’t follow such best practice should ask themselves how they measure up to this level of CSR and whether their position is at odds with the hyperbole and platitudes in their annual report.