High risk of injuries in Denmark's live piglet export trade, audit warns

Bibi van der Zee and Wojciech Kość
Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

The Danish government has been labelled “unsatisfactory” and “ineffective” in an audit of its ballooning piglet trade published today.

In 2008 3.2 million live pigs were exported from Denmark; by 2018 that number had risen to 9.6 million. But the government continued to carry out just 100 checks a year up until 2018, according to the audit, with just 0.4% of transports being checked.

The report also found that even when transporters repeatedly violated the rules, there was no kind of fine or sanction. The report concludes that as a result, there was “an unnecessarily high risk that the pigs may be injured or have suffered injuries during transport”.

In recent years Denmark has built up an industry in exporting piglets, and a particularly productive partnership with Poland. Danish pigs have been bred to produce large litters, so Danish piglets are cheaper than elsewhere in Europe. But regulations and labour costs are less onerous in Poland, so it is cheaper to rear and slaughter pigs there. As a result trade has increased, with Denmark exporting more than six million piglets to Poland in 2017.


This week the Guardian’s Animals Farmed series is focusing on the global live animal export trade, which, despite welfare and disease concerns, has quadrupled over the last fifty years.

Nearly 2 billion animals a year are loaded onto trucks or ships and sent off to new countries on journeys that can take weeks. 

Every day at least 5 million creatures are in transit, in a secretive global trade in live farm animals. 

And those numbers are just the cross-border journeys. They do not include long journeys within countries, which are becoming more frequent due to a trend that has seen smaller slaughterhouses close down.

We’re taking a moment to focus on some of the implications of this global trade. 


The vast majority of those are weaners – piglets of between 10 and 12 weeks that have just been weaned from their mothers. They are shipped in multi-storied trucks of up to five floors, and by law each piglet is allotted 0.2 sq metres of space.

At the maximum speeds allowed, according to Google maps, the driver could make it border to border in just under six hours. In reality, the trip would take eight hours or more. The piglets, who will still have been feeding from their mother not long before setting off, are not fed during the journey: they do have access to water though, as long as the driver remembers to keep the tank full.

The average Danish sow can produce a world beating 33.3 piglets a year. In the US the average is 26.4, and in the UK indoor herds are averaging nearly 26.

But the Poles can rear them more cheaply. Over the last few years the Danes have raised welfare and environmental standards for their pigs. But that has come, as the industry acknowledges, at a cost. As the former UK head of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council (DAFC), John Howard, explained in Global Meat News in 2014: “We would prefer to see more pigs finished in Denmark, but there are high environmental costs experienced by Danish farmers which are not shared by their colleagues south of the border [in Germany].”

Labour costs are cheaper in Poland, and in recent years processing infrastructure has been built. The piglets arrive at Polish farms, are raised, fattened, slaughtered and turned into Polish sausages.

graph showing rise in polish pig trade

And Poland has made the most of the opportunity. Since 2000, the country has built an entire pork industry, one of the largest in the EU; it has its own national herd of about 10 million pigs, and imports more. It has invested in the processing equipment needed in order to turn those pigs into sausages. A lack of slaughter facilities has slowed many of its east European neighbours in developing a meat export industry, but Poland has spent more than $800m on processing equipment since 2000 and built modern abattoirs, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

There are some who worry that this situation is not ideal for Polish farmers. “There are too few farms in Poland offering good stock for fattening. Farmers that want to specialise in pork but don’t want to breed pigs face the dilemma of where to source their piglets, often in batches of 1,000 or more. Foreign breeders can meet that demand,” said Martyna Batorska from the Warsaw Life Sciences University.

“Polish pig farms are small and breed pigs in closed cycle, which is difficult, is too expensive and requires experience and time. In order to keep, say, 300 piglets for fattening, you need to have and take care of sows. Then you need to be able to maintain the right conditions for piglets after they’re born,” Batorska said. “It’s all very difficult. Much simpler just to buy piglets,” she added.

“In Poland, farmers breed piglets only when they specialise in Polish breeds or if they’ve specialised in closed cycle pig farming, but those are few and far between,” said Maksymilian Zaręba, a farmer living near Pułtusk in the Warsaw province.

And the piglets? The trade from Denmark is now attracting closer attention after Animal Welfare Denmark (AWD) obtained official veterinary records and published the fact that the monitoring bodies were carrying out just 100 checks a year on export vehicles. “That has now increased to about 250 a month,” said Ditte Erichsen, a vet specialising in transport who works with AWD. The journey logs for long transports showed that the monitoring bodies had found hundreds of violations, “but despite finding many violations, the inspectors had never reported anyone to the police”.

But still, she said, it is nearly impossible to get data on the journey. “No one keeps records, that we’ve been able to find, about mortality rates, for example. You have young animals, travelling without food, and in some cases without water. But we really know nothing about them.”

Related: ‘Sick cow’ meat scandal in Poland: fears raised over other slaughterhouses

“Polish companies importing piglets must meet all standards for transport of live animals. If those standards are higher in the source markets, such as in Denmark or the Netherlands, then they must meet those standards. It is better conditions than [animal rights] activists want people to see,” said a manager at one of the piglet-importing companies, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) told the Guardian it has cooperated closely with the Danish auditor general (Rigsrevisionen) in investigating the long haul transport of pigs.

“The issues raised and the points of critique in the general auditor’s report are lessons to learn from. Since the summer of 2018, when the DVFA became aware that we did not systematically follow up on the logs, administrative procedures and control routines were amended to safeguard the conditions for transported pigs. Furthermore the number of physical controls of the pigs wellbeing as well as the standards of vehicles has been increased significantly.”

Christian Fink Hansen, director at SEGES Danish Pig Research Centre, part of the DAFC, told the Guardian: “Meat production and export is of great importance to the Danish economy and creates a large number of jobs, so it is the aim of the Danish pig sector that as many pigs as possible are raised and slaughtered in Denmark. Because of the superior health status and genetics there is however a great demand for Danish pigs from other countries. It is a shared goal for farmers and transport companies that the pigs are transported in a safe manner, so they arrive in best possible condition and good health. All transport of animals from Denmark must comply with EU regulations for transport of live animals.”

He added: “Denmark is a small country with a large production of livestock, so it is only natural that part of the production is sold outside the country. If you look at larger European countries, then a transport of piglets from Denmark to Poland easily compares to a transport within the country in, for instance, Sweden or Italy. So just looking at cross-border transport gives a somewhat biased picture.”