Norway’s farm animals are definitely left to their fate

To the saga of administrative incompetence, governmental indifference, industrial obfuscation and chronic animal abuse, one of the richest countries in the world now adds two elements: “lack of funds” and judicial benevolence.

15/08/2021 Last June, the Norwegian Radio and Television Corporation, NRK, released a documentary entitled “The Pig Industry’s Broken Promises“, based on graphic material obtained by activists from the organization Nettverk for dyrs frihet (Network for Animal Freedom), who documented repeated animal welfare violations perpetrated by Norwegian pig farmers. The documentary sought to establish whether things had improved following a similar report published in 2019. The conclusion was that everything had gotten worse, in particular because of the ineptitude of Norway’s Food Safety Authority, Mattilsynet, and the indifference of Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s conservative government. The only measurable difference was that last June, after watching the documentary, the Minister of Agriculture, Olaug Bollestad, said she was “really irritated.” In 2019, the same minister said she was “angry and disappointed.” In this context, the Minister’s state of mind should be seen as a valuable development.

“Moreover, the regulations for the pig industry are so bad that pigs even suffer on farms that do not break the law,” NRK wrote, citing as an example of such practices that almost all Norwegian pigs are kept confined in a small concrete areas for their entire lives, with no opportunity to satisfy their innate needs, such as foraging materials and nesting. “The state of pig production is testimony to both a failure of the system and serious problems of mentality,” NRK concluded.

Normally, reports of this kind raise public awareness, which in turn motivates some kind of response from administrative and political authorities. This is not the case in Norway.

On August 9, NRK published a new piece analysing a report by Mattilsynet on its supervisory management of animal welfare for the first half of the year. The report gives an account of 781 inspections carried out in the six-month period; that is, a sharp contraction from the 3,704 inspections carried out in the same period of 2019.

The pandemic is the immediate excuse provided by Mattilsynet. According to the section manager for animal welfare, Torunn Knævelsrud, the pandemic has resulted in the need to “concentrate only on absolutely necessary inspections.”

NRK reveals that, in reality, the pandemic is only part of the explanation, as farm inspections have decreased by 70% in the last five years.

In response, Knævelsrud says “it is undoubtedly a question of using the available resources in the best possible way, i.e. acting with as much certainty as possible, identifying those producers most at risk of committing animal welfare offenses”. Knævelsrud explained that Mattilsynet has strategies to “more systematically monitor producers who chronically mistreat their animals,” something that will be achieved with a digitized record of any illnesses or injuries that animals have when they arrive at the slaughterhouse.

This approach implies that the Norwegian food authority accepts chronic mistreatment of animals and only identifies the need to monitor them more systematically.

Bjørn W. Jakobsen, vice president of the Norwegian Association of Veterinary Medicine, told NRK that Mattilsynet, like many Norwegian state organizations, has experienced a reduction in subsidies in recent years, resulting from government policies of streamlining and downsizing state agencies.

Jakobsen points out that this process of streamlining and downsizing has, in practice, resulted in Mattilsynet no longer conducting surprise inspections; that is, without announcing its visit to the farmer. “Due to lack of resources, forget about spotting the worst farmers, it’s about finding the worst of the worst.”

According to Jakobsen, Mattilsynet needs government funds in the order of NOK 100 million (EUR 9.6 million / USD 11.3 million) to improve its work and optimize digital monitoring and control tools. There is also an urgent need to hire 20 new veterinarians for the animal welfare division.

Government: “Controls do not improve animal welfare”

Norway’s deputy minister of agriculture, Widar Skogan (Christian Democrat party), believes that Mattilsynet is doing “a good job.” “We consider that animal welfare does not depend on a budgetary factor or on the inspections that Mattilsynet does. It is up to the farmers to comply with the law and have good attitudes.”

In a previous report, NRK analyzed Mattilsynet’s system of inspections and monitoring. Specifically, it studied 200 violations of the Animal Welfare Act on Norwegian farms, concluding that “animals suffer for months, even years, without the authorities managing to put an end to the situation.”

Excerpt from Mattilsynet’s logbook for one pig farm, for a period of 8 years:

2012: several sick and injured animals were observed. Among them, a female with open wounds all over her body, which was not slaughtered by the farmer as she “had to farrow first”.

2016: Deplorable cleaning routines, with the entire surface where the animals sleep full of urine, water and excrement. Pigs were covered in urine and excrement, including their heads. There are thick layers of dried excrement in uninhabited areas.

2017: Repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act were observed. The conditions in which the animals live cause them great suffering, for prolonged periods of time.

2020: No improvement in the situation is observed.

And yet nothing was done.

NRK analyzed 217 violations and infractions of the Animal Welfare Act, and the monitoring carried out by Mattilsynet. Their conclusions are:

  1. There are no consequences

When Mattilsynet conducts an inspection and finds violations, it issues a resolution on the spot, where the farmer is given a deadline to correct the situation. “Then time passes, with no consequences for farmers who delay their response or simply fail to correct the situation,” writes NRK.

In this regard, Mattilsynet CEO Ingunn Midttun Godal commented, “Perhaps we have not paid enough attention to enforcing compliance with our resolutions. There is potential for improvement there”.

NRK then asks her, “Why don’t you follow up on every infringement and every infringing producer?”

Midttun Godal’s answer: “It is quite possible that we need to be stricter”.

  1. No documentation is required

NRK notes that to close an animal welfare law violation case, all that is required is for the producer to say that the pigs’ situation has improved. “With no documentation required, everything is resolved with a phone call from Mattilsynet, where an official makes a note on a piece of paper, concluding that everything is fine.”

Screenshot: NRK

Mattilsynet resolutions and hand written compliance statements: “Done on 4-30-20”, “Delivered on 4-30-20”, “Procedures were reviewed”, “Daily cleaning is done”, “Cleaning was performed”.

“Mattilsynet then concludes ‘OK’, and then the case is filed”, writes NRK, which presents a series of screenshots, with Mattilsynet’s documentation. We transcribe a selection:

“Regarding the resolution about keeping the area where the pigs rest dry, of improving cleanliness and the pigs having material to forage, the case is closed as you have reported that you clean and spread material more frequently.”

“You have communicated telephonically that you have seen to it that all pigs have access to foraging material. We have not received a written response from you. In any event, we have decided to close the case based on the verbal information you have provided to us.”

“You have informed us that you will try to give the pigs more foraging material to meet their natural needs. Regarding your bovines, you have also told us that you have better procedures for cleaning the resting area of these animals, and that they are thus dry and clean. Mattilsynet considers the case closed.”

According to NRK, half of all cases are closed that way, i.e. without documentation to prove that the situation of the animals has in fact been improved. “Mattilsynet could ask for a photograph, or a certificate from a veterinarian. They do not do so, thus breaching their own regulation which expressly states: ‘resolutions resulting from inspections must be checked’ “.

This approach, at least the photographic one, is refuted by Ingunn Midttun Godal, in whose opinion “a photograph is a snapshot”, stressing that the organization is concerned that the livestock producer systematically improves the situation of his/her animals. Regarding the approach on the veterinary certificate, Mattilsynet’s CEO kept silent.

“How does Mattilsynet know if the infringement has been corrected if you don’t ask for documentation?” asks NRK, to which Midttun Godal replies, “In some cases we accept written or verbal answers, when there is reason to believe that the situation has improved.” In doing so, she contradicts the facts, as NRK has documented that half of the cases are resolved that way.

NRK told Middtun Godal that only 15 out of 84 cases were closed after a follow-up inspection of an offender’s premises. To this, Mattilsynet’s chief executive responded, “Perhaps it is appropriate to ask ourselves whether we could follow up better and faster, but we must prioritize the worst cases.”

  1. Mattilsynet is unaware of its own rulings

According to NRK’s research, almost 50% of all infractions originate from various infringements, such as pigs not having adequate space, with no material on the floor such as straw, hay, etc., to satisfy their natural need to forage, as well as a lack of water, feed and cleanliness. In addition, 30% of the cases refer to sick or injured animals that do not receive any attention at all.

However, such statistical information is a novelty for Mattilsynet, which does not keep any statistics on the type of infractions it detects and which motivate its resolutions. The resolutions are not systematized and therefore the agency does not know which infractions are repeated among pork producers.

“We don’t have good enough statistics on our inspections and we don’t have good enough analysis on the things we reveal among swine producers,” said Mattilsynet’s CEO.

  1. Unresolved cases

NRK’s investigation also revealed a number of long-standing unresolved infringements. It cited as an example the case of a farm where pigs did not have enough water to drink. The situation was repeated for years, until a Mattilsynet inspector gave the farmer 30 days to resolve it. 617 days later, when NRK looked at the documentation, the case still had not been resolved and Mattilsynet did not know what the current situation was with the pigs on that farm.

At another farm, inspectors in 2019 observed several pigs with open wounds, fractures or prostrated without being able to stand up. Mattilsynet wrote at the time that “it is serious that the producer has repeatedly avoided attending to sick and injured animals.” A three-week deadline was then given for the farmer to remedy the situation, including giving him the option of slaughtering the pigs. After 797 days, or 114 weeks, the case was still open in Mattilsynet.

NRK writes: “As a result of our reporting, Mattilsynet settled the case quickly, sending the farmer a letter, where it apologizes: ‘Our resolution [edited] 2019 was responded to by you within the required timeframe. This letter must be sent to you so that it is correct for the computer system, we regret that it is so long overdue’ “. It should be noted that Mattilsynet’s brief note has punctuation and typing errors in the original language, Norwegian.

When asked about this particular case, the responsible official said “There is no explanation, we just failed”.

But NRK dug further, finding that the farmer in question continued to deliver fractured and open wounded animals to the slaughterhouse. Mattilsynet’s simple contradiction, or deliberate misinformation, regarding this case was exposed as the agency itself had written another letter to the same farmer: “The pigs had wounds on the tail, with open hernias in the belly on both sides, and with wounds all over the back, up to the head. One animal came in so badly damaged that its carcass had to be destroyed.”

In response, Ingunn Midttun Godal commented: “This is insufficient supervision on our part. This is a case of chronic animal abuse. The welfare of the animals was bad for the first inspection, then a little better for the second inspection, then worse again. The question is when should we say ‘enough is enough’.”

NRK then asks her, “The case was closed when we asked. How can you know that the situation of the animals has improved, just because we called?”

Midttun Godal’s response, “I think there you mention something that we could improve.”

  1. Few severe reactions

NRK writes that Mattilsynet is empowered to apply a number of measures to force farmers to improve the situation for their animals, such as fines or even closure. However, these measures are very rarely used.

Of the 217 cases analyzed by NRK, severe resolutions were adopted only 11 times. “What happens then is that Mattilsynet gives many offenders another chance,” NRK observes, adding that, “For example, one producer had so many sick and injured animals that a plan for improving animal welfare was required. The producer made a plan, but did not follow it. By the second inspection, the animals were still suffering. Mattilsynet then adopted a new resolution: ‘draw up a new plan’. The farmer was also advised to print out the plan and post it on a wall.”

NRK then asks: “How much must the animals suffer before Mattilsynet forbids a farmer to engage in pork production? Only three producers were shut down in one year. One of them after 10 years of repeated violations of Norway’s Animal Welfare Act. Mattilsynet based its closure decision on the fact that ‘the violations resulted in great suffering for many animals, over a long period of time”.

Mattilsynet’s attitude is reflected in the following comment from Ingunn Midttun Godal: “On the one hand, we must contribute to producers taking better care of their animals. On the other hand, if we use the harshest measures, we will be taking away that producer’s livelihood foundation. Therefore, it is important that we are patient”.

  1. Only exceptionally do they carry out unannounced inspections

As a general rule, Mattilsynet should not announce its inspections because the idea is to see the facilities as they normally operate. However, in 7 out of 10 inspections, Mattilsynet announces its arrival to the pig farmer.

In doing so, Mattilsynet is in breach of EU regulations, according to which inspections must not be announced. Although not an EU country, Norway has adopted much of the EU guidelines through the European Economic Area (EEA).

The explanation given by Ingunn Midttun Godal is as follows: “The inspectors do not feel safe. During the last few years Mattilsynet has been criticized a lot for the way it does its work. Sometimes we are criticized for being too strict and sometimes for not being strict enough. This has affected self-confidence in the organization. Our staff feel insecure about their role. They don’t feel confident enough to apply the toughest measures.”

The situation also appears to be tense for the farmers themselves: “Just seeing a Mattilsynet vehicle entering the farm can be difficult for the farmer. In addition, unannounced visits can also have a negative impact on how we are perceived.”

Ole Andreas Engen, professor of risk management at the University of Stavanger, Norway, defended Mattilsynet, noting “the most effective form of inspection is not to be a kind of policeman snooping behind every bush. The best, and cheapest, way is for farmers to comply with the rules because they want to. A culture of compliance with the law is not achieved with sanctions or suspicions”.

Asked about the fact that Mattilsynet does not require documentation from swine producers on improved animal welfare, Engen replied, “On the one hand, it can be interpreted as showing confidence in the farmer, which in itself is a good thing. But it could also look a bit naive, and from the documentation NRK has shown me, it could look like the oversight is poor.”

Mattilsynet annually receives 12,000 reports of “concerns” about animal welfare on Norwegian farms.

It is hard to believe that Norway, one of the richest countries in the world, lacks 9 million euros to strengthen Mattilsynet, an entity that is obviously not up to its task. But the problem is clearly not only the alleged lack of funds, but the chronic ineptitude of Mattilsynet, which is reflected in several passages of this article, and also the indifference of the country’s political authority.

What about the courts of justice?

In this context of neglect, the courts could be the last resort, the last hope of human solidarity for animals, apart, of course, from the work of animal rights organizations.

However, this is not the case either. On June 27, NRK published an interview with Kåre Skogstad, a cattle producer who “let his animals drown in their own excrement.” Claiming psychiatric problems, this farmer abandoned 32 cows to their fate in a barn for four and a half months.

The man was brought to trial and sentenced to 7 months in jail. In his ruling, the judge wrote: “On opening the barn, apathetic cows were observed wading in their own manure, which covered the entire surface of the enclosure. Three carcasses were floating, of cows drowned in their own excrement. One cow, still alive, had manure up to her neck. Then three more carcasses were found submerged in this brown matter, with varying degrees of decomposition. The water troughs were covered with manure. The smell of ammonia was unbearable and made it difficult to breathe. In their desperation for fresh air, the cows had broken a small window with their heads. One of them had its head poking through the broken glass. When the fire department had finished its work, seven bodies had been recorded. 25 cows were evacuated, but 18 of them had to be slaughtered.”

However, as inexplicable as it may seem, despite the conviction, the court decided to authorize the farmer to continue his work as a cattle farmer. The only limitation is that “he may only keep a maximum of 55 cows”.

In the interview, NRK asks Kåre Skogstad: “Many people have reacted to our revelations about the situation on the pig farms. People find it inexplicable that something like this is happening. What do you think about it?”.

Skogstad’s response, “Oh, sure, in a way it is inexplicable. If someone does something like that deliberately against their animals, then I would call them psychopaths. The problem is that the system makes these farmers work themselves to death. I’m not saying they should be absolved for the pictures we’ve seen. But I think the system is designed to keep things like this happening.”

NRK then asks him, “Do you understand that there are those who are of the opinion that you should no longer be in charge of animals?”

“I understand that perfectly. I myself thought that way when I read about other similar tragedies. How is it possible that they don’t clean up all that shit? But after what happened to me, I understand that things like that can happen,” says Kåre Skogstad, adding that “a totally different approach is needed on a political level. We need to organize animal husbandry that protects the animals and the farmers.”

Picture: Nettverk for dyrs frihet

This being our second article on the neglect of farm animals in Norway, some may wonder if we at Sociedad Vegana have any animosity against the Nordic country. On the contrary, the general perception of Norway, which we share, is of a country that stands out for its humanism and its mediating leadership in global conflicts; in short, a champion of human rights. Therefore, more than animosity, we feel disappointment in the face of a country that does nothing, administratively, politically or judicially, in the face of the permanent abuses to which innocent, sentient and defenseless beings, farm animals, are victims in its territory.

Hector Pizarro

All pictures: Nettverk for dyrs frihet

View the Spanish language version of this article.

Suggested reading:

Years of systematic abuse and violence against pigs in Norway revealed

Elbeik, Spain and the European Union: when rock bottom is reached

Leave a Reply