Intensive farming: The secret suffering of pig farming in the UK

Author: Maria Chiorando

Read Time:   |  27th August 2021

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Pig farming has serious implications when it comes to animal welfare and public health. We reveal some of the disturbing secrets within the industry


It is a well-known fact that pigs are more intelligent than other domesticated animals. In fact, they’re actually easier to train than dogs or cats.

Yet many people who describe themselves as animal lovers continue to eat pigs. This is despite how much they suffer on farms and at the slaughterhouse – and in huge numbers too.

According to government data, around 10 million pigs are killed every year in Britain.

A recent Animals Farmed report published by The Guardian said, “60% of sows and almost all fattening pigs [are] kept indoors in concrete or slatted floor pens – entitled to one square metre of space each.”

Pig farms are classed as intensive farming if they have the capacity for at least 750 breeding sows, or 2,000 pigs raised for meat.

This type of intensive farming – more commonly referred to as factory farming – is completely unsuited to the unique needs of pigs, according to Rob Webb.

He is a spokesperson for non-governmental organisation Farms Not Factories. They encourage consumers to help end factory farming by eating less meat or cutting it out entirely.

Farmed pigs are deprived of the ability to express their natural behaviour

Webb told Vegan Food & Living: “Factory pig farms can be defined as intensive, indoor facilities in which pigs are crammed into small cages and kept on barren concrete slatted floors.

“A lack of straw or similar material deprives them of the ability to express their natural behaviour of rooting.”

Pro-vegan organisation Animal Aid agrees: “Contrary to popular belief, pigs like to keep themselves clean and are not happy wallowing in excrement.

“Yet the majority of farmed pigs are often forced to live standing and lying in their own waste.

“Research shows that in natural conditions pigs are highly active, spending 75% of their day rooting, foraging and exploring.

“Condemned to a life of misery and squalor, such activities are impossible for factory-farmed pigs.”

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Investigations around pig farming reveal serious welfare breaches

On top of these barren conditions, multiple investigations have uncovered welfare breaches on pig factory farms.

Undercover footage released earlier this year by advocacy organisation Animal Equality showed workers on a farm branded ‘high welfare’ hammering piglets to death.

Other grim scenes filmed at another pig unit that has supplied numerous major retailers included animals being kept in squalid conditions.

The problem is, this kind of suffering likely happens more frequently than the industry likes to admit.

Dr Alice Brough is a former pig industry veterinarian turned animal rights campaigner.

She is working with advocacy group Humane Being to take legal action against the UK government, calling for the end of factory farming.

She believes the scale of these welfare breaches is a factor in them being so hard to control.

“The issue is that [welfare problems] are so widespread, that if you start going after one slaughterhouse or farm, it opens it up, because we can’t prosecute everyone and shut them all down,” she said.

“It’s the same with farm investigations, where you film workers abusing animals, or horrendous welfare breaches.

“While the industry might say in response ‘this is awful, we’ll sack this person’, we know very well it is happening in lots of places.”

Routine procedures: a cause for concern

When it comes to animal suffering, advocates also cite routine procedures throughout the pig farming industry as cause for concern.

One of these procedures is tail docking, described by the RSPCA as the ‘removal of part of the pigs’ tail in order to reduce the risk of tail biting in older pigs’.

According to Dr Brough: “Tail biting is very common on UK farms – particularly intensive farms – where the pigs will bite each other’s tails through stress.

“Because you’ve got an open wound over the spine, you can get infection tracking up the spinal cord, and then it can easily spread to joints.”

Dr Brough added that this issue goes beyond animal welfare. She comments: “Because you have abscesses in the joints, there is the likelihood of having abscesses elsewhere in the body, and this is a potential food safety issue.”

And this isn’t the only management practice that causes concern.

Webb also lists tooth clipping at birth, and the use of farrowing crates to confine sows for up to five weeks in each pregnancy (equivalent to two-and-a-half months per year) as issues.

He says many of these poor conditions exist as a result of pig farming in the UK becoming a ‘race to the bottom in terms of animal welfare’.

He explained: “Many UK farmers are struggling to compete with cheaper (i.e. lower welfare) imports that force them to intensify production or leave the industry altogether.

“Pigs should not be the victims of a system that treats animals like commodities – much like producing a fridge or car parts.”

Mother pigs (sows) are confined to farrowing crates for up to five weeks in each pregnancy

Mother pigs (sows) are confined to farrowing crates for up to five weeks in each pregnancy

The many hidden costs of pig farming

On top of animal suffering, buying cheap pork from factory farms carries other hidden costs that most people are unaware of, added Webb.

“Public health is threatened through antibiotic overuse to keep pigs alive which leads to antibiotic-resistant diseases that can pass from pigs to humans,” he said.

The World Health Organisation describes antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today”.

An estimated 66% of all antibiotics used worldwide are used in livestock.

This is a tricky dilemma, as according to Dr Brough, ‘pigs often require these antibiotics to survive a hideous system of our making’.

Concurring with Webb, she said: “Animal farms are perfect breeding grounds for disease, perfect for cultivating pandemics and antibiotic resistance.”

And that’s not the only public health issue pig factory farming plays a role in, says Rob Webb.

“Factory pig farms produce excessive quantities of waste in the same area that pollutes the air, sickening both the pigs and local residents, and contaminating rivers, lakes and the sea,” he told VF&L.

“This causes eutrophication that suffocates fish and destroys aquatic wildlife.”

Inhumane slaughter; the horrors of the gas chambers

However, one of the main talking points when it comes to animal welfare, is the way pigs are slaughtered in pig farming.

According to Webb, a staggering 86% of pigs die in gas chambers, which he says causes ‘extreme suffering’.

This statistic includes both factory farmed and ‘higher welfare’ animals.

Reports say multiple studies show how this method of killing leaves “pigs gasping for air, squealing and struggling to escape for up to a minute before losing consciousness”.

Even the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which released a report on the topic earlier this year, condemned the method saying: “There are longstanding concerns about the negative welfare impacts of high concentration CO2 stunning systems for pigs.”

So what can consumers do to help?

For Dr Brough, the answer was giving up animal products altogether.

“I went into the meat industry as a meat-eater, very pro-farming,” she said.

Brough explained that she “quickly realised that it was hideous across the board – not just at your classic intensive farms. I went vegan a year or two in, and left after four years.”

Many advocates believe the most powerful tool people have is their wallet and their purchasing power.

As Webb says: “Factory pig farms only exist because people buy their products.

“By using our power as consumers, we can change our food system.”

Are you ready to give up bacon now that you know the truth about pig farming?

You need to try these vegan bacon recipes that taste better than meat!

Written by

Maria Chiorando

Maria is an editor and journalist. Her work has been published by the Huffington Post, the Guardian, TechnoBuffalo, Plant Based News, and Kent on Sunday among other national and regional titles.

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