Pork is a big part of Danish culture. The country’s folklore, thousands of years old, tells the story of Saerimmer, a living pig which provided enough meat to feed Valhalla; the pork was cut from its side every day, and magically regenerated as the gods ate. Although the gods of Valhalla would most likely fall foul of animal welfare standards if they were around today, the mythical hog does have a modern-day counterpart.
Just outside Horsens, a picturesque town on the Jutland peninsula in eastern Denmark, at a single, massive slaughterhouse, more than 80,000 pigs a week are killed on-site. It is the second-biggest slaughterhouse in the world, and is one of the central engines of a business that accounts for six per cent of the country’s annual exports. If, like 41 per cent of Britons, you eat pork once a week, Horsens is also more than likely to be the source of at least a few of the rashers of bacon you have eaten during your breakfast. The UK currently imports around 70 per cent of the pork it consumes, and Denmark provides a third of that pork. The owners of the Horsens slaughterhouse, the farming collective Danish Crown, are the biggest producer and exporter of pork in the country, accounting for more than 90 per cent of all Danish pigs.
While not every British consumer will have heard of Danish Crown, most will be familiar with the brands sold by its UK subsidiary, Tulip. Using pork produced in Denmark and the UK, the company is the source of big names such as Danepak, Stagg tinned chilli con carne, Plumrose ham, its own brand Tulip bacon and a former staple of the British diet, Spam. Not unsurprisingly, Tulip is also the biggest pig farmer and distributor in the UK. Its Dalehead foods subsidiary farms pigs at Linton, Bury St Edmunds, Corsham, Spalding and Stradbroke, and is the main supplier of pork, sausages and bacon to the UK supermarket chain Waitrose, with meat from Dalehead also used in other Tulip brands.
The Danish pork industry has come under fire in the past for benefitting from lax animal welfare regulations, which in turn, British farmers have complained, have allowed them to undercut their competition abroad. In 1999, the then head of the Conservative party William Hague demanded that all imports which did not meet British standards be halted to allow British farmers to benefit from thee higher animal welfare standards they employed; meat produced using notorious ‘stall and tether’ farming, in particular, should be banned, he said. Hague’s proposal came to naught, perhaps because Britons like their bacon so much. It is the only red meat to have seen a sales spike during the past decade, with demand growing by 2.8 per cent in 2010 alone. Yet the concerns over animal welfare have not gone away.
Environmentalists are also - rightly - worried about the carbon footprint associated with the national addiction to pork. Although pork production does not create anything like the on average 12kg of carbon emissions per kilo of beef, it does produce a significant three to four kg of CO2 per kilo. With demand for pork growing, the level of carbon emissions is likely to increase with demand. Further, campaigners including Greenpeace have long worked to put pressure on pork producers including Danish Crown to eliminate the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in animal feed.
While all of these concerns remain valid, they are not unique to Danish bacon, and the Danish government has been working towards significant reform of the sector in recent years; collaborating with farmers and producers including Danish Crown. Stall and tether farming will be completely outlawed in Denmark by 2014, and Danish Crown claims to have almost completely eradicated its use by its suppliers - and it should know, as it is owned by farmers. From 1999, the company has only supplied meat to the UK, which meets British domestic regulations – some of the strictest in the world.
The Danes can also claim to have among the lowest carbon footprint for pork production in the world, thanks in part to lower overall use of feed per head in the world. At some 2.6kg per kilo of meat produced, it uses the lowest agricultural inputs in Europe, beating British pork, which uses around 2.5kg per head, into second place. Meanwhile, a 2008 study by the Danish meat producers association suggested that because of more efficient practices employed in Denmark, the carbon footprint of pork products exported to the UK were in many cases lower than meat produced domestically. However, a Dutch study carried out in 2009 found that the carbon footprint of Danish and British pork was roughly equal, at 3.5kg per kilo of meat, but that organically produced meat in the UK was far more carbon intensive than its Danish counterpart, weighing in at 4.4kg versus 4kg. Danish Crown remains tight-lipped over the use of GM feed but has committed to producing some GM-free pork, much of it marketed as an organic brand.
Much of the company’s ability to realise the kind of efficiency it has over the past decade has been due to the construction of the Horsens facility, which was commissioned in 2005. Danish Crown believes that it is the most technologically advanced, and energy-efficient, plants of its kind in the world, and that it is among the most sanitary and, strangely, given that much of the process is automated, one of the most humane. A key element of the plant is its use of robotic systems to keep pigs in groups, contained in well-lit holding areas before being slaughtered. The company says that this decreases stress levels among the animals, and even reduces the number of carbohydrates burned up as a result, making the finished product tastier. It complies with EU standards for the amount of space allocated to each pig, and allows its international customers to visit its production facilities regularly. The Horsens facility uses carbon dioxide to stun pigs before their slaughter, a method which has become increasingly respected within the industry but which has also drawn criticism from animal rights campaigners, who claim that it is ineffective in lower doses.
The company has done as much as any other major pork producer to make sure that its farming and processing facilities are humane, clean, and energy efficient. But the fact remains that even with all of these efficiencies in place, the more bacon rashers we add to our fried English breakfast, the more carbon we emit.
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