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Defra Minister delivers reassuring message on farrowing crates during Commons debate

17th Mar 2020 / By Alistair Driver

Farming Minister Victoria Prentis highlighted the extent to which the Government’s attitude towards farrowing crates is shifting towards the NPA’s position during a debate in the Commons last night.

Farrowing crate debateStressing that the Government did not want to repeat the mistakes of the 1999 sow stall ban, Mrs Prentis told MPs the Government does not want to risk ‘outsourcing’ animal welfare issues to other countries by taking actions such as banning farrowing crates.

The sparsely populated debate on ‘Caging of Farm Animals’ took place in Westminster Hall yesterday, with the attention of the vast majority MPs understandably elsewhere.

Opening the debate, which was took place after more than 100,000 people signed the End the Cage Age petition, Bristol MP Kerry McCarthy (below) called for the Government to phase out the use of sows in farrowing crates, as well as individual calf pens, and barren and enriched cages for poultry and other forms of confinement on farms.

Kerry McCarthyShe claimed cages continue to be used on British farms, ‘despite well-established alternatives that allow animals to express their individual needs and have been proven to be economically viable’.  

In a debate that lasted just an hour, five MPs made contributions before new Farming Minister Victoria Prentis responded, outlining the Government’s stance.

Mrs Prentis (below), who described pigs as one of her favourite animals and explained how she used to keep them, stressed that the Government ‘remain completely committed to the ambition that farrowing crates should no longer be used for sows’.

She cited the new pig welfare code, which states: “The aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary and for any new system to protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”

Victoria prentisBut, referring to what happened after the unilateral 1999 UK sow stall ban when farmers being undercut by cheaper EU imports produced using stalls, forcing many out of business, she said:

“The UK has led the way on improving pigs’ welfare by banning the keeping of sows in close confinement stalls in 1999. I am not in any way criticising that decision, but it is worth noting that we were about 80% sufficient in pigmeat in 1998.

“The figure had fallen to about 50% by 2003, and it is currently about 56%. I am extremely keen not to outsource animal welfare issues to other countries.”

The NPA has been encouraging members and supporters to write to their MPs ahead of the debate explaining why farrowing crates are used and why a ban could be counterproductive. During her speech, Mrs Prentis echoed many of the arguments the NPA has been making.

She stressed the need to make progress towards a system ‘that both works commercially and safeguards the welfare of the sow and her piglets, and that we do so as quickly as possible’.

“The UK is already ahead of most pig-producing countries on this issue, with about 40% of our pigs living and farrowing outside. Good progress has been made, but there is more to do,” she added.

You can see Mrs Prentis talking about how the industry is working with Governmemt to look at options that are commercially viable and protect both sows and piglets here

Mrs Prentis pointed out that while Defra has funded research into alternative farrowing systems, the commercial development of farrowing systems and practices ‘is not sufficiently advanced to recommend the compulsory replacement of all farrowing crates’. “But I ​am keen to work with the industry on this—using both carrots and sticks—because it is important to not simply move production abroad,” she added.

Farrowing crate 3

Mrs Prentis confirmed that, via the Agriculture Bill, there is likely to be support for producers who wish to make the transition under a post-Brexit domestic farm policy.

Change of approach at Defra?

Last year, when Theresa Villiers and Zac Goldsmith, both of whom had actively supported the ‘End the Cage Age’ campaign, were appointed to key roles at Defra, a potential ban on farrowing crates shot up Defra’s agenda. This was confirmed with the publication of the draft pig welfare code.

Mrs Prentis’ comments last night highlight that, while phasing out farrowing crates remains a goal, Defra is adopting a sensible approach to the problem, suggesting the NPA’s messages have been getting through.

NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “This issue has not gone away and we will continue to explain the industry’s position on this at every opportunity.

“But is heartening to see that Victoria Prentis has taken on board the key messages we have been highlighting about why farrowing crates are used in pig production and the consequences of a unilateral ban.

“As she so rightly highlighted, suitable alternatives are simply not available at the moment and banning farrowing crates in the UK would simply result in domestic pig production being replace by imports pork produced from systems still using farrowing crates.”

Zoe thanked every member and supporter who has contacted their MP on the issue. “It makes a real difference. But let’s not be in any doubt, there is still a long way to go on this one.”

You can read the NPA’s farrowing crate briefing here

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