• Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024

To label or not to label- the case for animal welfare food labels

ByEmma Jillings

Apr 12, 2021
A man inspects the labelling of a meat product. The introduction of 'animal welfare food labels' has recently become increasingly prominent.

Did you know that in the UK, hen eggs are the only animal produce legally required to specify the animal welfare conditions on the food packaging? Or that the only meat which must declare country origin is beef? Or that an estimated 70% of UK farm animals are kept in intensive conditions? These facts matter because they underline the need for clear and mandatory food labels regarding animal welfare.

When slaughterhouses became hotspots for outbreaks of Covid-19 it prompted a sombre acknowledgement that we have very little idea what goes on inside them. Farmed animal welfare is now one of the issues catapulted into the Brexit limelight as farm subsidies and trade agreements are negotiated, making this a critical time not only to celebrate existing high standards in the UK but also to raise the bar for animal welfare. 

In comparative terms, the UK does extremely well on farm animal welfare standards. In 1822, it became the first country to enact animal protection laws, with the ‘Act to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle.’ In 1965, a parliamentary inquiry into intensively reared livestock resulted in the concepts of the ‘five-freedoms,’ which continue to be the primary framework guiding standards of animal care worldwide. 

More recent progress includes making CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses, and Defra is currently consulting on a radical proposal to ban the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening. As a member of the EU, we supported and adopted a suite of legislation; 80% of our animal welfare legislation is derived from EU law with 17 laws relevant to farm animals. 

We have often improved on this, banning pig ‘sow stalls’ in 1999, fourteen years ahead of the EU. Importantly, we also have a range of voluntary schemes which go above and beyond these minimum requirements, such as the Soil Association Organic label or RSPCA Freedom Food Scheme, which provide rigorously monitored certification. This is a tradition which British citizens and farmers can be rightly proud of, but we must remain vigilant to safeguard our good standing.

Running a farm is, however, a business, and like all businesses, farmers must watch the bottom line. To meet consumer demand for cheap food, many do not improve upon the minimum requirements set in law for animal welfare. Since current legislation is based on the ‘five freedoms’ mentioned above, the emphasis is therefore on avoiding unnecessary suffering and providing for basic needs (e.g freedom from hunger and injury).  

In the eyes of many, this is woefully insufficient for ensuring decent standards and we have a long way to go before the lives of farmed animals can be deemed ‘worth living.’

Currently, sixty per cent of UK pigs are kept indoors with a minimum allowance of 1.3m2 per pig, and routinely have their tails removed to prevent stress-induced tail-biting. Thirty percent of broiler chickens develop lameness, heart, and lung problems as a consequence of being selectively bred for unnaturally rapid growth, and frequently suffer hock-burn and footpad lesions from squatting in poor quality litter. Advocates continue to call for a review across all farmed animal legislation.

While minimum requirements are heavily criticised, so too is the system of voluntary assurance schemes. It is difficult to find impartial explanations and evaluations of the different schemes, meaning it is unclear what you are buying when you are buying ‘assured.’ 

Red Tractor, for example, primarily certifies that food is produced in Britain and has marginally improved welfare requirements. Far beyond its name, the ‘Soil Association’ organic label is the highest scorer according to the British Veterinary Association on welfare principles. Becoming familiar with what different labels represent and how to compare the standards underpinning them is no straightforward task.

Opinion research has demonstrated that despite caring about animal welfare, the majority of the British public consider themselves under-informed. A 2020 YouGov poll in Scotland confirmed this, with by far the majority of people answering ‘don’t know’ on whether practices such as poultry beak trimming, live export, or separation of calves from mothers within 48 hours birth is allowed in the UK. There is also ongoing confusion on welfare differences between ‘outdoor reared,’ ‘outdoor bred,’ ‘free range,’ and ‘organic’.

Voluntary Assurance Schemes are hugely valuable, but having an array of them with varying standards can create confusion. A 2020 DEFRA report, ‘Farming for the Future,’ described labelling and marketing as ‘opaque and inconsistent,’ and stated that they are working ‘to develop consumer transparency reforms.’ While this sounds promising, it is hardly a new issue on their radar, and only receives a small section in the report. 

It would be transformative if the government were to introduce and regulate mandatory ‘welfare labelling’ for all meat and dairy products. We need a unified, consistent, and compulsory top-down scheme and the requirement of front-of-pack labels. 

For full transparency the label should span the whole supply chain: breeding, lifetime on the farm, during transport, and at the slaughterhouse. Ideally, the labels would be ‘multi-levelled,’ essentially grading the production system and associated level of animal welfare. This would encourage and reward higher standards and allow more nuanced consumer choices. 

The case of egg labelling has shown that consumers make more ethical choices when they have clear information available. Courtesy of EU law, since 2004 it has been mandatory for egg packages to indicate farming methods (caged, barn, free-range or organic). 

Since then, the number of non-caged laying hens has more than doubled, such that fifty-five percent of UK eggs now come from cage-free systems. Four in five UK shoppers would like to see this labelling extended to all meat and dairy products. 

In the absence of such labels, misleading packaging can often paint a false picture: wholesome-sounding invented farms, ironic brand names, images of rolling pastures and frolicking animals, and comforting but deceptive phrases such as ‘farm fresh’. We should be sceptical shoppers and presume minimum welfare unless otherwise indicated. 

Attitudes to food are changing, with dietary preferences shifting as more people are choosing ethically sourced food and cutting down on meat and dairy. Unsurprisingly there is a correlative trend of division and debate, as the meat industry and libertarians push back in defence of meat eating. 

However, honest labelling appeals to both sides of this debate. A concern for animal welfare – the treatment and wellbeing of animals – does not prohibit the use of animals to satisfy human desires (for food, clothing, scientific experimentation, entertainment, etc.). We can at least find common ground in pushing for consumers to be able to make informed choices and buy with the confidence that animals live their lives under acceptable conditions. Honest labelling is also about being fairer towards the farmers who do work to higher welfare standards, who deserve recognition and protection from being undercut.

Most of the British public and farming community care deeply about animal welfare. Beyond this, the environmental costs and threats of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases which go hand in hand with low-welfare industrial farms no longer seem so abstract. 

As it stands, the power of market demand as an engine of change is largely unrealised. A clear, comprehensive, and compulsory labelling system which allows consumers to align their shopping habits with farm animal welfare preferences would be a significant step forward. 

Image: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

By Emma Jillings

Features Writer