Toys before swine

Posted: Feb 10, 2003 12:00 AM
I didn't make this up: New European Commission regulations require pig farmers to put "manipulable material" that provides "environmental enrichment" in pigsties. By which, the Eurocrats apparently mean, even if it's not set out explicitly in the new regs: Toys for pigs; it's the law. A spokesman for the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explained the new regs, designed to keep bored pigs from becoming depressed or overly aggressive with other swine, this way: "We mean footballs and basketballs. Farmers may also need to change the balls so the pigs don't get tired of the same ones. These rules are based on good (animal) welfare (practices). We don't want to come across as the nanny state, but the important thing is to see pigs happy in their environment. They like to forage with their noses." As an alternative, the rules would allow pig farmers to provide straw for foraging or a hanging metal chain for the pigs to nuzzle, which many farmers do now. In Great Britain, failure to comply with the European Union regs could result in a fine of 2,500 pounds or three months in jail. In short, the EU message to its member nations is: Great bacon comes from happy pigs. Or else. Bore a pig, go to jail. Many British farmers say they already provide diversions to keep their pigs happy. Still, the governments of the United Kingdom already regulate farming, so many aren't exactly thrilled at the prospect of EU pig police with the power to fine or jail inspecting their farms. One disgruntled farmer complained to a local paper in the United Kingdom, "You can't be sent to prison for not giving toys to children, why should it be different for animals?" Why? Because animals have a stronger constituency than children have in certain EU countries. Those constituencies don't shrink from measures that would drive up the prices of food. (Poor children, who can't afford pork -- well, they can eat cake.) And those constituencies want stringent regulations that micromanage the humane handling of livestock to become part of world-trade pacts. No pig toy, no free trade. It could happen someday. UC-Davis swine center manager Kent Parker doesn't go for the EU approach. As he sees it: "There are as many ways to raise pigs as there are people to do it. There's no particular way to raise pigs." UC-Davis, for example, arranges pens so that pigs can have "nose to nose" contact. He also has seen balls, chains and open pens used to keep pigs happy. "There's a hundred different ways to keep the pigs from tearing up the place and each other," Parker explained. Of course, Parker believes in treating farm animals humanely. But Parker has seen how animal-rights forces work. "To make it (raising animals) more costly, they think is a good thing," Parker observed. Animal advocates believe that higher food prices will reduce the number of farmed animals, Parker noted. But over-regulation doesn't work that way. Demand won't go down; food prices will go up. Manteca, Calif., pork producer Scott Long sees the measure as "pretty ridiculous. It's like any of those animal welfare rules; they have their point, but if there's a producer that's not treating his animals right, he's not going to be in business for a long time anyway. "I feel sorry for the farmers over there because they have so many regulations already. I don't know how they'll stay in business." It seems the next assignment is to figure out what toys can be fed to EU regulators to keep them from being bored and overly aggressive.