Morley steps up his pig tagging campaign

Animal health minister Elliot Morley is pressing ahead with controversial plans to introduce compulsory holding-of-birth tagging of pigs not going direct to slaughter.

This will involve the mutilation of around 115,000 young pigs a week and producers say it will impose a pointless and unsustainable burden on the industry.

NPA says it's as interested as Morley in securing the health status of the national herd but compulsory tagging will bring little benefit whilst causing major economic damage to the industry and jeopardising animal welfare. It vigorously opposes his plans.

Morley called for an immediate review of pig identification and movement rules (PRIMO) this summer following a foot and mouth scare involving a load of sows at Selby market.

He wants his new rules to be in place by summer next year. Pig producers fear he is using the Selby incident as an excuse to pursue a personal crusade to have all pigs identified, whether this brings any benefit or not.

It is a source of annoyance to the pig industry that one load of cull stock collected via Selby market is now driving changes that will impact adversely on the whole UK pig population.

Elliot Morley has never satisfactorily explained what Defra's investigations into the Selby incident revealed.

Producers say most likely a pigkeeper unwisely sent sows to the Selby liveweight market without slap-marking them first. They point out that this practice, once identified, has now ceased, and in any case the loophole will be permanently plugged when Defra introduce compulsory slap-marking (a measure which the NPA supports).

In their consultation document (see NPA Library) Defra claim they are required by EU law to introduce holding-of-birth identification.

But NPA has already made the point that the Danes don't have to tag because they have established a credible tracing system within their cooperatives, and British producers are capable of demonstrating similarly robust traceability through registered pyramids.

The British system -- proven during swine fever and foot and mouth -- is all the more robust today, following the introduction of Defra's competerised livestock movement system (AMLS) which allows Defra to track the movement of pigs.

An NPA spokesman said today he hopes commonsense will prevail over the tagging issue. "The Defra team responsible for drawing up the proposed changes has been shown the difficulties, and dangers, of tagging on an outdoor unit and has spent time with BQP to learn first hand how a pyramid system works."

Disappointingly the knowledge the team gained has not been incorporated into the PRIMO consultation, but it may still prove helpful when the consultation responses are evaluated.

Under the proposed new identification rules pigs that go direct to slaughter from their holding of birth, and within six months of birth, will be exempt from tagging -- but all other pigs would have to be tagged, including those that move to different sites in a pyramid system, even if they stay under the same ownership or control.

NPA has argued that pyramids should be treated as birth-to-slaughter production and the pigs should therefore be exempt from tagging. To comply, such pyramids should exclude the presence of any other pig and should be registered with Defra.

The cost of tagging

Government say their proposal to tag or tattoo pigs with a holding-of-birth number is designed to improve traceability in the event of an outbreak of swine fever or foot and mouth.

Tagging involves mutilating young pigs and therefore raises welfare issues. It is time-consuming and dangerous for outdoor pig-keepers and may have health and safety implications. Tattooing is equally impracticable, as each tattoo has to be brushed in with a toothbrush if it is to be readable.

There is a view in the pig industry that the man driving the tag-at-all-costs campaign is animal health minister Elliot Morley.

Producers fail to understand what is motivating him. The pig industry's existing traceability systems proved effective during swine fever in 2000 and foot and mouth last year, and holding-of-birth tagging would mean only a minor improvement to an already robust system, and would be out of all proportion to the cost, inconvenience and risk involved.

Producers have pointed out that breakdowns in traceability occur only if a producer willfully breaks the rules. They say introducing new rules will not make lawbreakers any more law-abiding and will serve only to further oppress the majority of professional, law-abiding pig keepers.

Defra argue that the EC could take the UK government to the European Court of Justice if is doesn't introduce holding-of-birth identification.

But producers say that Britain (like Denmark) can demonstrate its existing systems are adequate. Pigs moving off their holding of birth other than to slaughter are generally moved within a pyramid; they stay under the same control and at any time can be traced directly to their holding of birth.

According to Defra's impact assessment, tagging is a two-man proposal. Indoor litters will take four minutes, outdoor litters five minutes.

Defra say typical initial costs of the new PRIMO rules would be around #320 for an indoor unit and #348 for an outdoor unit, rising to over #6,000 for larger units.

"The majority of these costs could be absorbed into day-to-day costs if tagging takes place as part of the routine inspection when animals leave the premises," they say.