At the moment, only UK egg packaging is required to give an indication of which of the various production systems the eggs emerged from, but animal welfare bodies are keen to see the idea extended to other animal products. There is also support from some farming bodies, who see superior animal welfare as a way of differentiating UK produce from imported meat and dairy, particularly in the post-Brexit world of international trade deals.
There were 1500 pieces of evidence submitted to Defra, which has now pledged to move to a full consultation on method of production labelling next year. After reviewing the responses to its consultation on labelling standards for animal welfare, the government has said it is especially interested in exploring the potential of mandatory animal-welfare labelling and will consult on proposals in 2023.
The consultation – Labelling for animal welfare: call for evidence – found that while there was broad support for mandatory labelling of imported products from respondents across all sectors, opinions differentiated when it came to products produced and sold in the UK.
Welcoming this promise, the RSPCA noted that the majority of responses came from the public demonstrating a ‘real demand’ to bring in more transparent labelling for the animal products people consume.
“Recent polling for the Animal Kindness Index revealed that 58% of people who eat animal products said they’d pay extra for products where animals had not been kept in cages – rising to 63% in women – showing that even in tough economic times there is still a demand for higher welfare,” said the RSPCA.
“Mandatory ‘method of production’ labelling will help inform shoppers in supermarkets and food service outlets about how the animals that produce their food have been reared, giving more incentive and support to farmers to produce to higher welfare standards and allowing consumers to have more choice over the products they buy and consume.
“Currently only eggs are labelled in this way with shoppers now becoming familiar with the terms free range, barn, cage or organic systems, but we want to see these labels expanded to all animal products. Defra has suggested that it is important that the labels will cover imported as well as domestic products to give people clear information in the face of Free Trade Agreements which threaten to lower our farm animal welfare standards.”
The government said it recognises the regulatory impact that mandatory animal-welfare labelling standards could have on businesses, and thus said it will co-develop proposals with industry and other key stakeholders to take full account of the potential costs and benefits at all stages of the supply chain.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ran a 12-week consultation last year seeking input on new labelling standards for produce now that, post Brexit, EU regulations no longer apply. The aim of the consultation was to give Defra an understanding of how new food labelling might impact businesses, farmers and consumers.
The consultation received 1,633 responses, 93% of which were from individuals (1,515) and around 7% were from organisations (109), Defra explained in its summary of responses to the call for evidence on labelling for animal welfare. Overall, according to the consultation summary, there is great support for the government to reform labelling to promote greater consistency and understanding of animal welfare information at the point of purchase.
Compassion in World Farming
Compassion in World Farming or CIFW is campaigning for clear food labelling that shows method of production – in which sort of system the animal was farmed. Food labelling should and can be simple but is often made to be quite confusing. Across food products there are so many different codes, labels and standards that it can be difficult to know what the label means for animal welfare. Labels may say ‘farm assured’, ‘locally sourced’, ‘farm fresh’ – but none of these really guarantee animals have been reared in higher welfare systems.
Although around 70% of UK farm animals are reared in intensive systems, there’s no law requiring food labels to say how an animal has been raised – except for whole hens’ eggs. The evidence is clear, once consumers know the full story, many of us choose higher welfare. Take eggs, for example. Compassion supporters were part of a hard-fought campaign that, in 2004, resulted in the introduction of mandatory egg labelling across Europe. By law, egg producers and retailers now have to clearly label whether hens have been raised in caged, barn, free range or organic systems. Since then, cage-free egg production has doubled, from accounting for 31% of the market in 2003 to 60% today. Consumers were finally given the full picture, and started buying higher welfare eggs as a result.
The Right Thing To Do
The government’s food paper will perhaps have presented more questions than answers, not just among health campaigners but farmers too. Phrases like “more domestically sourced food”, “investment into agricultural innovation and technology” and “additional seasonal workers” will provide some encouragement. But many will rightly remain sceptical until they see detail and action.
One of the proposals that is solid is mandatory animal welfare labelling for domestic and imported products being improved and expanded, so the public can see how and where food was produced and, most importantly, whether it is produced to high standards. Shoppers may question why they should care about this given current financial pressures, but it is significant and here’s why.
For decades, Waitrose has adopted higher farming and welfare standards – not because it gives them an advantage commercially, but because they’re a purpose-led organisation and think it’s the right thing to do. It gives animals a better quality of life, our farmers pride and happiness and, because better standards necessitate better farming practices, it can help reduce the impact on the environment too.
You can design food systems to deliver the lowest possible cost and not care about or value the planet or the wellbeing of the people and animals involved in it. Inadvertently, that’s exactly how many of the food systems that supply UK consumers work today. But there’s no such thing as low price with no consequences. Large parts of the food supply chain are still reliant on agricultural practices that put the lowest possible cost ahead of even the most basic standards of animal welfare. Farming to higher standards does increase the cost of production and that inevitably leads to a higher shelf price. But the British public cares about the standards their food has been farmed to, and I firmly believe there is a growing majority looking for ways to do the right thing.
If that’s true, it’s crucial for customers to be equipped with good and reliable information. Clear animal welfare labelling would help customers make informed choices, improve the transparency of UK supply chains and help avoid the risk of our farmers’ standards being undercut by lower-welfare imports.
Another of the recommendations in the National Food Strategy that didn’t make it through was a call for a reduction in UK meat production of 30%. This is no small thing, but be clear that the goal isn’t to stop meat production entirely. The goal is to support a more balanced diet – for example, where someone might shift from eating meat six or seven times a week to having it a few times a week, and eating better meat in addition to more plant-based foods, plant protein, whole grains and veg.
Choosing ‘less but better’ meat again requires a reliable and transparent welfare labelling scheme. If shoppers can clearly see where their food has come from and the conditions it was farmed to, they can make better, more informed choices. There is clear evidence with eggs and the wide adoption of free-range produce that clear labelling and standards can prompt a shift in consumer demand for higher-welfare products.
Truss was set to scrap the proposed banning of foie gras and fur importing to the UK. Truss was also reportedly planning to abandon pledges to ban the export of live animals for slaughter. A ban on the import of hunting trophies is also in danger of heading for the scrap heap. What the next prime minister will do will be seen soon as Rishi Sunak takes office.
A senior Conservative said rather than banning imports of foie gras and fur, the government could bring in labelling to explain the processes used to produce the controversial products to consumers. “Banning things seems very socialist. Informing people is the way to go,” said the Tory source.
Fur farming has been banned in England and Wales since 2000 and in Scotland and Northern Ireland since 2002. It is still however possible to import fur from abroad. Curbs on live exports and bringing an end to hunting trophy imports were part of the Tories’ election manifesto. They were also promised in the party’s Animal Welfare Action Plan, alongside the banning of foie gras and fur importing,
As part of the Animal Welfare Action Plan, published in May 2021, the government proposed an Animals Abroad Bill, aimed at tackling animal cruelty and to support conservation efforts abroad. The Bill was designed to ban imports of fur, foie gras, hunting trophies, and end the promotion of elephant tourist rides overseas. However, in February, several right-wing members of the cabinet, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, opposed the anti-animal cruelty measures. Rees-Mogg said he was in opposition to the bans because he believes people should have the right to be able choose to purchase products in cruel ways if they want to.
Other Tory ministers, including defence secretary Ben Wallace, also raised concerns that banning fur imports could result in the import of bear-fur hats that are worn by guardsman soldiers no longer being permitted. Fears about the future of animal welfare under the current government circulated when Liz Truss stripped environmentalist and Tory peer Zac Goldsmith of the domestic animal brief at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), as part of her cabinet reshuffle. Goldsmith has long championed animal welfare issues, introducing reforms such as a ban on ivory sales and more severe jail terms for animal cruelty. His sacking ignited fears about Truss’s commitment to animal welfare and tackling climate change.
Tory MP Henry Smith said: “Zac has been a fantastic champion of animal welfare issues in government and, despite all the other distractions, he’s been instrumental in delivering quite a few pieces of legislation that have made it on to the statute books … I would expect the government to fulfil all its manifesto commitments and pledges on animal welfare, regardless of which individuals occupy roles in various departments.” Now, news that the bans on foie gras and fur importing could be dropped has raised further concerns among animal rights and environmental campaigners.
Will the conservative government, regardless of who is prime minister, scrap the animal welfare labelling initiatives? Transparent food labelling is so important, and it’s such an important step towards the type of behavioural shift needed among food retailers to create a better and happier world for all. Time will tell.