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Busy EPP visit to France highlights common challenges

4th Jun 2024 / By Katie Jarvis

NPA senior policy adviser Katie Jarvis explains how a visit to last week's European Pig Producers Congress in France highlighted a number of common issues. 

EPP France 24The European Pig Producers’ Congress takes place every year in a different European country, organised by farmers and industry representatives from that country, and this year Lizzie and I travelled to France for three busy days of talks and visits.

It was a great opportunity to learn about the French pig sector, but also a chance to speak to farmers from across Europe to find out how things are changing and developing in comparison to the UK.

This year’s EPP Congress was based in Nantes and around Brittany in northwestern France, which is the region where most of France’s pig sector in concentrated.

As a whole, France is 102% self-sufficient in pork, and maintaining this figure is clearly high on the agenda. Imports and exports account for around 25% each, with their primary export markets being China and Spain. Interestingly, pork is the most consumed meat in France, though poultry is making big gains as it is in many other countries.

We found in discussions with farmers, but also during a meeting with one of their largest poultry and egg producers that the French flag on packaging is highly valued by French consumers, acting as a demonstration of high standards.

While additional welfare and environment labelling is used by some brands, it is primarily at the higher welfare end of the market where businesses want to capitalise their main point of difference.

The structure of the French pig industry differs from the UK in that it is still less integrated, though certainly moving towards more integration, but producer groups are prevalent, with 89% of production in 2022 carried out by the 32 that operate in France.

Farm sizes generally are smaller than in the UK, with just under 1 million sows nationally and an average herd size of 230. Farmers in France are moving more towards farrow to finish, as finishing is seen as more profitable, even if it means reducing the number of sows, and specialising in pigs over mixed farming with arable and other livestock enterprises.   

Common problems

Speaking to French farmers across the three days, we learned that the problems facing the French sector are largely the same as those facing ours in the UK. Farmers are looking to invest, particularly in flexible farrowing systems, but without a steer from the European Commission they don’t know what specifications they need to meet.

Environmental regulations, ASF, the anti-meat agenda and pressure from welfare groups were all discussed. Like us, they are finding that encouraging the next generation into pig farming is difficult, particularly as pork consumption and production is decreasing and younger farmers want less commitment, more security and social acceptance.

Research insitute

EPP France 24 3One of the most interesting visits of the three days was to the ifip Institute de Porc, a dedicated site for innovation and applied research funded by investment from various industry stakeholders.

The site includes a 200-sow unit that encompasses both slatted and straw housing and which will imminently include a building with outdoor access, allowing them to research and trial a range of systems. All of their sows are in flexible farrowing systems, introduced in 2020 with a 6.5m2 footprint per pen (4.7m2 for the sow and 1.1m2 for the piglets), with sows being confined for one week before farrowing until five days after.

Around 10% of French farmers are trialling flexible farrowing, so we were told, though there are lots of variables in sizing and ideas, proving that nobody has the perfect solution. Ifip is also hoping to develop a monitoring system which will use sound to detect early signs of tail biting, and they will use their new outdoor area to test the impact of outdoor space on the prevalence of this.

As well as productivity and welfare research, the site also conducts trials on ventilation, feed, flooring and muck and slurry, and has labs in which they are testing the impact of salt and nitrates on the presence of bacteria like salmonella and listeria in the meat. Overall, the institute is a clearly a valuable asset to the French pig sector.

Producer cooperative

The visits included travelling to the campus one of the largest producer cooperatives in France. Cooperl has over 200,000 sows, finishing around 5.6 million pigs a year.

A fascinating business which not only produces pigs via its members and slaughters and processes them, but also carries out research and has its own equipment including farrowing systems, slurry systems, monitoring systems, enrichment and lighting, as well as traceability software designed for their own use, to enable them to produce and sell antibiotic free pork for example.

They have also made big investments in renewable energy and water quality on their campus, which included their abattoir alongside demonstration rooms and educational space.

Seeing how farm businesses work in other countries is always interesting and can give so many insights into how things could be done differently.

It can also provide reassurance that we’re all facing the same challenges! We would certainly urge members to take the opportunity to attend future EPP congress events, you never know what you mind learn.