If the signs at EuroTier 2014 were not misleading, the pig industry in Europe is rapidly changing its attitude towards the growing amount of rules, regulations and directives.
Europe is the continent that leads the way in pig innovation. EuroTier 2014 in Hanover, Germany, mid-November showed this once more with a great variety of new innovations.
Europe is also leading with regard to setting new boundaries. A great few of these have come with legislation, after increased public pressure. As a result, pork producers all over the European Union (EU) have shown a great deal of willingness and cooperation to reinvent themselves.
Just think when the use of growth-promoting antibiotics was forbidden in 2006, which caused the industry to look for alternatives. Or of sow stalls during gestation were forbidden as of 2013, which was the basis of fundamental reconstruction of farm buildings and its equipment.
Add to that several ongoing themes. Tail biting and tail docking have been a matter of public interest and continue to attract public debate. Piglet castration has also come under increasing scrutiny and there are (voluntary) attempts to have this practice banned by 2018. Experiments are going on around free farrowing and concepts like 'locally grown pork' are fashionable.
In recent years, the most progressive countries, like e.g. Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France are also on their way to implement schemes for reduce even therapeutic usage of antibiotics as much as possible.
For a long time, the EU pork industry remained relatively quiet in response to all the challenges around them. Of course there was some reluctance when investments were needed at a time when no money was being made. And welfarists and environmentalists were blamed from time to time. But on the whole, 'belligerent' isn't the word I would use. Publicly, it was as if Europe's pig industry preferred to lie low and take cover.
In Denmark, where developments usually go ahead of European legislation, the accession of the new agricultural minister Dan Jørgensen last December seems to have led to a change in attitude. One of his attempts to push the boundaries even further after the well-known 'Yellow Card system' had already brought down the usage of antibiotics considerably in livestock production. To avoid the spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in Denmark, a new biosecurity protocol has been put in place since October 2014 and rules are likely to get even tighter.
Something must have snapped in Denmark – an example in many ways of pig production. Whatever the pig farmers already do to comply with new regulations – it never seems to be enough.
Many people I spoke to during EuroTier condemned the situation in Denmark as going too far, stating that the Danish government has now completely has drifted away from any sense or reason. The common complaint: "All the government does is listen to uninformed members of the public. The ministers don't really know what they are doing."
The gap between an ever-professionalising pig industry on one side and apparently oblivious consumers i.e. voters on the other, was a dilemma more often ushered at EuroTier. Carl-Albrecht Bartmer, president of the German Agricultural Society (DLG), addressed the audience at the EuroTier evening, on the first day of the show, saying: "Communication is essential, because large parts of society, living in the parallel world have lost connection with farming. The individual farmer is our greatest asset. He is in the centre of society and in the forefront of the dialogue with society. I cannot stress the importance for everyone involved in agriculture to connect on an individual level with your surroundings."
On the show, this could be seen very literally materialised with the introduction of a 'Swine Mobile', a caravan which is intended to travel through Germany, and just stand in various cities and towns. Opening its doors, members of the public can see pigs with their own eyes, under the conditions they are grown in professional farms. Here the people would be informed about how and why.
The developments bear witness to the growing notion that doing no self-promotion will immediately lead to information from only one side reaching members of the public – that of those organisations who disagree with the pig and livestock business.
Will actively reaching out to the public make any difference? I couldn't tell right now. The initiatives will certainly not silence those who wished that livestock production takes another direction. But it will help in offering many people more insight into what they consume – as indeed that is a black spot in many people's knowledge.
And yes, I embrace the attitude of stepping forward, to show pride and be willing to be transparent.
Last but not least – a quick look across the Atlantic Ocean. At World Pork Expo 2014, the National Pork Board (NPB) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) jointly launched a public initiative to go out and educate. The reason? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gradually introducing its voluntary antimicrobial withdrawal guidelines, and sow stalls becoming under pressure.
Seems like in this case Europe learnt something from its US peers.