The Size and Type of Pig Industry in Britain


About half of all the meat eaten in the world comes from pigs. In Europe about one-third of the meat is eaten fresh as pork, one-third as cured bacon or ham and the remainder is processed into pies, sausages and other manufactured products.

In the UK some 16 million pigs are killed each year for these products (1998 MAFF figures) (27)

95 per cent of all pigs reared for meat and 70% of breeding pigs are factory farmed. (44, 45, 46, 47, 48.)

In fact several sources state that less than 30% of breeding sows are outdoors - therefore Viva! has used the most generous estimate as this was cited by the government’s agriculture committee in a review of the UK pig industry in 1999 (44).

Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers Union, gave misinformation (one presumes deliberately) on BBC1 TV on 2 March 2001 when he implied that most pigs are outdoors. To be clear:

The UK pig herd is divided into the breeding herd and the fattening stock (those killed for meat). 30% of the breeding sows are kept outdoors, 70% indoors. However, almost all the piglets from the outdoor sows are then reared intensively indoors.

At least 95% of all fattening stock are reared in factory farms.

The Meat and Livestock Commission (Tony Fowler, Economist, MLC) stated to Viva! that:

‘there are 8 million pigs in the UK alive at any one time and of these, the maximum number of breeding sows in outdoor systems is 20% - but that is unusual and a maximum. The number of truly free range piglets is so small there isn't a figure - almost all piglets are reared intensively.” (45)

Jane Jordan of Pig Farming magazine told Viva!:

“25% of the national sow herd are free range, however their piglets are reared indoors. Less than 5% of pigs are free range totally - where the piglets reared for meat are outdoors.” (46)

And finally, the UK Pig Industry, House of Commons Agriculture Committee, 26 January 1999 states that the majority of British pigs are still finished indoors in ‘buildings designed for intensive systems’ and the number of UK outdoor herd accounts for about 30 per cent of breeding sows.

There are 287 abattoirs that slaughter pigs in Britain - however only 28 of these are specialist pig abattoirs and these kill an average of 354,875 pigs per year (the rest kill an average of 49,404 pigs per year). (28)

There are about 14,000 pig holdings in Britain and there are in the region of 8 million pigs alive at any one time, of which 778,000 are breeding sows (figures for June 1998) (27).

187,000 pigs were exported live in 1998 to Germany, Ireland, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and France (28). In addition, 220,000 tonnes of pig meat was exported in the same year - to Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Japan, Hong Kong, Poland, Hungary and the USA. (Countries listed in order of amounts exported to them - largest first.)

The value of production of pig meat in the UK in 1998 was £873 million, 27% below that of 1997 (27). There was an increase in the size of the breeding herd in 1997, which led to an increase in the number of pigs sold for meat. This, along with the availability of cheap imported meat due to the value of the high pound, is the reason MAFF give for the downward turn in UK pig meat sales (27). (See Pig Industry Crisis later.)

Pigs are sold for slaughter between 55 and 125kg live weight. Consumer demand is for lean meat and this is the excuse the industry give for genetic engineering along with feed and environmental manipulation, to produce in the quickest time 'a carcass with a low quantity of subcutaneous fat'. (1) The industry says: 'The efficient producer has to manipulate these factors continuously if his animals are going to be slaughtered in the most financially attractive markets'. (1) The industry aims to produce large pigs with low fat in the shortest possible time. This philosophy means that the welfare of the animals is not considered.

Traditionally, pigs were allowed to grow at a natural pace. They were turned out into the forests daily where they foraged and walked for long distances. The ‘fattening stock’ was killed at about one year old. Today, pigs are killed at 5 to 6 months old - and yet the animals are larger. The breeding sows also lived more naturally; however today they are forced to have a succession of pregnancies and then are killed at 3 to 4 years old for poor quality meat products. Pigs naturally live to about 12 years.

In Britain, pigs killed for meat are placed in four categories:

  • the pork pig (55-62kg) for small joints on the bone, sold as fresh meat
  • the cutter pig (64-82kg) trimmed of fat and skin, used for supermarkets and large retailers, with some of the carcass used for processed products
  • the bacon pig (90-100kg) cured
  • heavy hog (100-125kg) often trimmed of skin and fat and most often used for sausages, pies and processed meats. Killed breeding stock - both sows and boars - are also used for low grade meat in eg sausages, salami, pies, soup, baby food, school dinners etc.