Giving farms 'glass walls': will animals benefit from truth in UK food labels?

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» Giving farms 'glass walls': will animals benefit from truth in UK food labels?

In the last few years, there have been significant changes to food labelling regulations in the UK, with many more expected to occur in the near future.

These have been fuelled by a variety of factors including Brexit, specific incidences (such as new allergenic information requirements under Natasha’s Law) and changing consumer preferences.

At the end of 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) opened a call for evidence on labelling for animal welfare. This comes as no surprise, as a prior Defra consultation (Health and Harmony) found that 72% of respondents were in favour of further standards to ensure greater consistency and understanding of animal welfare at the point of purchase. 

‘We are a nation of animal lovers’ is a phrase that echoes throughout Westminster as often as it does regular dinner time conversation. It is often said that the UK has the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and indeed, the UK was the first country to pass legislation to protect animals in 1822 with the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. In more recent years, the UK government has made some commitments to improving the lives of the animals we share this nation with. These include publishing an official Action Plan for Animal Welfare, extending the scope of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill to help protect more animal species and plans to become the first European country to ban live animal export.

Though animal welfare is undoubtedly important, The Vegan Society is focused on achieving the highest welfare standard of all – animal rights. We are committed to the vision of a world where animals are free from all forms of use, exploitation and harm. This is demonstrated in our response to Defra’s call for evidence and in all other areas of our work. In line with this, it is important to keep on top of governmental decisions that impact the lives of non-human animals.

Defra has recently (August 2022) published the summary of responses from its animal welfare consultation and there are several points of interest for the vegan movement. TW: from this point of the article onwards we mention topics such as animal slaughter.

There are many barriers for consumers wishing to purchase foods that they might consider ‘high welfare’. The public has a general lack of understanding regarding farm practices and animal welfare implications. Many people simply do not want to know what happens to animals in our food system. On top of this, the array of welfare assurance labels that exist in the UK are underpinned by various welfare standards. This might help shoppers to feel reassured, but leaves them in limbo when trying to understand what these assurance labels actually mean.   

The call for evidence found that nearly all individual respondents (as opposed to respondents from industry or NGOs etc.) said the government should reform labelling to promote greater consistency and understanding of animal welfare at the point of purchase. The summary also found that half of food companies and the majority of industry associations did not support reform, with some noting that it could decrease product choice if retailers chose not to stock lower welfare products. This disparity between individuals and industry is important to note. People are often shocked and saddened when they see the levels of animal abuse that are allowed to occur in animal farming systems, particularly those classed as ‘lower welfare’. This notion of a ‘decrease of product choice’ could instead be viewed as an increase in better-informed shoppers and a step towards eradicating the worst animal abuse in our food systems. Plus, large food retailers often stock tens of thousands of individual products, with Tesco peaking at 90,000 products in 2015. Too much choice can exhaust shoppers, especially when given the choice of too many cheap and unethical options. A decrease in ‘lower welfare products’ is exactly what the food system needs.

The summary goes on to note that “[m]any respondents argued that there was a need for mandatory labelling on meat products to indicate whether the animal had been stunned prior to slaughter” and goes on to say that there is “[a] possibility that providing information on the specific method of slaughter used could lead consumers to decrease their meat consumption [which is] a positive for animal welfare”. Later in the summary, it notes that some respondents “thought that method of slaughter labelling regulations should be part of a wider set of animal welfare standards”, rather than stand on their own. One reason was “the potential to unsettle consumers by providing specific information about the animal slaughter practices, with some citing the potential for deterring consumers from purchasing meat products altogether”. It is important to note that “method of slaughter” in this context is specifically referring to whether the animal has been stunned or not. Which, of course, relates to all forms of animal killing, not just religious practices such as halal and kosher. But what if “method of slaughter” labelling referred to the whole animal farming system? What if, instead of trying to reassure shoppers and say the animal was unconscious before being slaughtered, it was mandatory to tell them what this meant? Imagine the effect it could have on shoppers if meat was labelled as, for example, ‘method of slaughter – stunned by electric current’ (common for farmed cows and sheep in the UK), ‘method of slaughter - electric water bath’ (common for farmed chickens and other birds), or ‘method of slaughter – suffocated by carbon dioxide’ (common for farmed pigs). What if we also reported ‘method of slaughter – male chicks shredded to death within one day of hatching’? How could this transform our food system and our relationship with animals?

The UK is known for spotlighting its animal welfare standards, yet when it comes to the slaughter process, the public is often left in the dark. Respondents clearly acknowledge that the public finds the idea of slaughter ‘unsettling’, yet it is an unavoidable aspect of animal agriculture. Perhaps if the public were encouraged to face the slaughter of animals in the food system each time they went to make a purchase, they would be empowered to make truly ethical decisions.

The summary ends by noting that the government is interested in exploring mandatory labelling for both domestic and imported products, taking into account our international trade obligations. Work will also continue next year as the government consults on proposals to improve and expand current mandatory labelling and introduce complementary measures in the food service sector. 

The Vegan Society believes 'glass walls' for animal farming – so that people have truthful information about what animals endure because we choose to eat them – are vital.

We cannot have an environmentally sustainable, socially just, or nutritionally balanced food supply while our industrial farming of animals for food continues. Mandatory food labels will not go into graphic details, they will simply state the facts. Being called to reflect honestly on the facts about how animals are treated in farming while we purchase our food will be one more step towards the sustainable, just, healthy food system that everyone deserves.

By The Vegan Society's Policy team.

Learn more about our policy work by visiting Our Work with Policy Makers.

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