Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) is calling for an urgent review of the EU Pigs Directive after visiting 60 pig farms in the major pig-producing regions of Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.
The charity claims that its investigators recorded a high rate of poor animal welfare and routine flouting of EU laws regarding tail-docking and the provision of environmental enrichment. Spain received the worst report, followed by the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and Britain, but CIWF claims that all the countries it investigated had examples of poor animal welfare
"In general the situation of the pigs was very alike in all countries we visited," said CIWF's investigator. "The pigs looked uncared for, they showed aggressive behaviour and there was nothing for the pigs to do. The floors were bare, space was very limited and the places very dirty.
"It's horrifying to imagine that most of the meat sold in the supermarkets, restaurants and that we see in daily life [coming from animals] is being kept in these conditions."
CIWF's report - 'The State of Europe's pigs' - praised the British pig industry above its EU counterparts for welfare improvements, including the banning of sow stalls, reduction of castration and use of straw, but said further changes are needed to substantiate high welfare claims.
"Although conditions in the UK are better, we still need the pig industry to raise their game, because many UK pigs continue to be kept in conditions that are inhumane and unlawful," said CIWF's chief policy adviser Peter Stevenson.
The CIWF claims that 80% of British pigs are tail-docked, despite the 2003 EU ban on routine tail-docking and said, "Many British pigs are still kept in often overcrowded pens with bare floors - factory farming conditions equivalent to intensively kept chickens."
The CIWF said that it wants the EU Pigs Directive, which is due to be reviewed in 2009, to be strengthened "to end the suffering that is inflicted every day". It has urged consumers to check labels and demand higher welfare for pigs.
BPEX has insisted that British farmers do not routinely tail-dock pigs, but do so only on the advice of the vet, and are therefore not breaking the law. Head of marketing Chris Lamb said consumers should buy pork labelled with the Quality Standard Mark to guarantee high welfare.
"The Quality Standard Mark has more than 130 individual elements on-farm and we stand by the high quality this delivers to consumers," he said.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver will investigate the difference between pig welfare standards in the UK and the rest of the Continent in a programme due to be aired early next year. British farmers claim they are facing unfair competition from European farmers producing to lower standards.