Pork farmers have been conducting a high-profile advertising campaign to encourage consumers to buy more expensive British produce, claiming that standards are higher than they are on the Continent. But the images, taken at farms linked to leaders of the industry, raise serious concerns about the welfare of the majority of the country's 8 million pigs.
Vets at the Government's Animal Health agency, which enforces welfare legislation and conducts regular inspections of farm premises, said it would investigate the findings.
Activists from the welfare group Animal Aid entered 10 farms in March and April. Two of the farms were operated by companies run by members of the industry's governing body the British Pig Executive (BPEX), while others were linked to other senior figures in the industry.
An advertising campaign run by BPEX and the National Pig Association last year, "Pigs Are Worth It", showed pictures of clean pigs standing outside on straw and boasted shoppers were getting "a top quality product from a well cared for animal". Animal welfare campaigners have asked the Advertising Standards Authority to ban the adverts, saying they mislead the public about the conditions experienced by the two thirds of the UK's pigs that are reared indoors.
Animal Aid claimed its investigation showed that farmers were "falling considerably short" of the images it portrayed in its campaigning. Shot in Cornwall, Somerset, Lincolnshire, North and East Yorkshire, the footage shows pigs with sores where they have rubbed against metal bars; farrowing crates that prevent sows from moving; pigs with bite marks; collapsed and convulsing animals; pigs covered in excrement; dirty pens; and routine tail-docking.
"At the farms we visited, injuries – such as bite marks and bloody ears – caused by the stressed and bored pigs themselves were commonplace," said Animal Aid's campaigns officer Kate Fowler-Reeves. "Every farm with breeding facilities had pigs injured in this way.
"We found many lame animals, including one sow with what appeared to be a broken leg that, apparently inadequately treated, had set awkwardly, leaving her seriously incapacitated. Although the stocking density at each of these farms may fall within legal limits, the conditions were often so crowded that we believe the public would be shocked by them. Pigs are known to be clean animals ... yet many were covered from head to toe in excrement."