Demand for cheaper bacon from British consumers has apparently prompted a Danish bacon producer to invest £100 million in a new processing facility in Rochdale, Lancashire. However, the Danish Crown company are only planning to process the pork meat they import from Denmark.
I still remember the black and white Danish Bacon TV adverts from the 1960s.
Bacon was generally bought by weight from the local butcher or grocery store, sliced to order. The rind was stamped with the word ‘Danish’ and their slogan claimed that ‘the tastiest bacon has Danish written all over it’. The Danes have a history of selling their pork to overseas markets. Each year Danish Crown – owned by the Danish pig farmers – sends nearly 2 million tonnes of pig meat to 127 different countries.
The UK pig herd
A significant percentage of the UK pig herd has traditionally been raised in East Anglia. However, UK records show that total numbers have now fallen to just over five million animals, approximately 50% of the number recorded in the 1990s. While the UK is largely self-sufficient in beef, lamb, dairy, chicken and eggs, the figure for pork products continues to fall.
The decline is not due to lack of demand. What British meat eater doesn’t enjoy a bacon butty? The cost of raising pigs in the UK is apparently the problem, and many East Anglian farmers are struggling to achieve the prices they need for their produce.
Danish Crown Chief Executive Jais Valeur believes the UK requires more imported bacon. “We think consumers will be trading more on price and more on the discount.”
“Generally farming is expensive in the UK and in order to survive and cover those costs, the British farmers have been looking for premium products like outdoor-bred pigs,” he said.
What is the “cost” of cheap bacon?
My article in East Anglia Bylines last June, Factory Farming in China, described a new, intensive form of pig meat production. But is this a practice we should be supporting here?
The variety of pig determines the size of a litter, with numbers varying betwen 7 and 20. Sows are capable of producing up to 2.5 litters per year and with an average 14 teats per sow, weaker piglets in large litters can struggle for food. In the UK in 2018, the average commercial sow produced 25.8 pigs a year. In the US that number rises to 26.4. But in Denmark, sometimes referred to as the world’s laboratory for industrial pig farming, the average sow produces 33.3 piglets per year. Some farmers have managed to push that figure higher and believe that a sow could produce 50 piglets annually.
However, these high performing sows do not last long. After delivering just three to four litters they are shipped off to the abattoir. Close to 50% of the breeding herd is culled each year, according to Maria Eskildsen and Andreas Vest Weber’s book Pig Production, written in 2015. The reasons behind this quick turnover include rapidly declining fertility, poor mothering behaviour, age, sickness and injuries. Death in service figures currently stand at 9%, according to a review by The Danish Agriculture and Food Council (DAFC), down from 11.3% in 2011, but still higher than for most comparable countries. The reasons are unclear, as the producers are not required to record cause of death.
Farm inspections and piglet mortality
The DAFC carries out more than 3,000 inspections of Danish pig farms each year and has admitted that there are still challenges relating to the proper handling and treatment of sick and injured animals.
Piglet mortality is also an issue. Animal welfare campaigners are becoming increasingly concerned. “Danish pig breeding is now extreme with big welfare consequences for the piglets,” says Britta Riis, director of Animal Welfare Denmark.
The average litter in Denmark in 1996 was 11.2, with pre-wean mortality at just over 18%. By 2009, following the introduction of intensive breeding, litter numbers rose to 14.2, whilst pre-wean mortality rose to nearly a quarter of the litter. This prompted a study and action, and according to the DAFC, the mortality rate is currently running at about 21.7%, while the average litter size has now risen to 16.9 piglets. In comparison, the US industry benchmark averages from 2012–2017 for pre-weaning, nursery, and finishing mortalities were 17.6%, 4.6%, and 5.3% respectively.
The value of animal welfare and provenance
If animal welfare and food provenance are important to you, support your local butchers, farm shops and delis. Their staff will know where and how their pork products have been produced. Our failure to support UK pig farmers now will inevitably see a further decline in our food security.
Is the claimed ‘high demand for cheaper bacon’ really consumer-led, or are the major retailers recognising a benefit to loading their shelves with imported, intensively bred meat? I suspect it’s a mix of the two. The cash price of British produce might be slightly higher, but the production of cheaper imported meat clearly comes at a different “cost”.