The issue of animal welfare has become prevalent in people’s minds and we are all too familiar with images of cruelty to animals. However, consumers now have the chance to make shopping decisions based on welfare reasons with the establishment internationally of schemes that put welfare at the top of their agenda. Hugh Westbrook asks: How easy is it for consumers to understand what they’re buying.

The situation in the UK is confusing at first glance. There are large numbers of labelling schemes and it is not always obvious what each one stands for. The Food Standards Authority’s recent report on assurance schemes concluded that they needed to be “radically reformed” to avoid this confusion.

The report looked at 18 different labelling schemes ranging from what it calls ‘baseline’ to ‘higher level’ schemes. The majority of the baseline schemes are eligible to use the Little Red Tractor, which is run by Assured Food Standards (AFS). This scheme looks to ensure that among other things high standards of animal welfare are practised. The only welfare-specific scheme to operate in the UK is the RSPCA’s Freedom Food.

Freedom codes

On a superficial level, these schemes may look to be setting out to achieve the same thing in welfare terms. Both adhere to the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s (FAWC) five Freedom codes: freedom from fear and distress; freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal behaviour. Without looking into further details, the consumer may therefore assume that their welfare policies are identical. Some campaigning groups evidently think this is the case as well – AFS has been slammed by groups such as Compassion in World Farming for its treatment of animals. So what are the schemes trying to achieve?

Freedom Food is unarguably a welfare scheme. It uses the freedom codes as a framework on which to build much more detailed welfare measures than are required by law and runs advertising campaigns to illustrate this. Outgoing chief executive Mike Sharpe told “The freedom codes are a statement of aspirations – our welfare codes are framed by them, they are ideals. The RSPCA has only one objective in mind. We worry about all aspects of an animal’s life. Our standards are comprehensive and mandatory and we have no other interest.”

The RSPCA standards are complex, as a look at the Freedom Food website confirms, and they are applied across the entire production process. Getting this message across is difficult and requires the consumer to take time to understand it. “The key message is got across by advertorials,” Sharpe explained. “It is not a simple process because the information we are trying to get across is quite complex.” In relation to other schemes, he added: “If you read the very top line then there is the possibility for confusion to occur, but we do provide a lot of information to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“It is hugely important to get the message across. One of our big concerns is that the public is misled and there is not enough information out there for them to make an informed decision.”

Not just gold plating

In contrast, Little Red Tractor schemes are interested in all aspects of production, not just welfare. Chief executive David Clarke told that the AFS standards seek to ensure “that farmers are doing what they are supposed to be doing. We’re not there to put gold plate on things. We aim to make sure that farmers comply with legal requirements.” Consequently, welfare standards are largely set at the legal requirement level.

“We support animal welfare and can point to places where we are well above the requirements. But we are not consistent with Freedom Food in every regard. Freedom Food sets its standards higher. We are not a niche scheme. We target the standards every farmer should aspire to.” Clarke added that he felt that consumers understood the difference.

As for the attacks on its welfare standards, Clarke was scathing about Compassion in World Farming: “They were not prepared to understand our agenda and were annoyed because we didn’t fit their agenda.” He was also unhappy over the FSA report, which suggested that much of the criticism came from what it called “the over-selling of the schemes at the outset.” He described that as “history”, adding it was “one use of the word ‘highest’ two-and-a-half years ago, rather than ‘high’ or ‘higher’ standards. Recent information has not repeated that. We try to be very careful now about what we are saying and we’re ensuring it’s underpinned by scientific research.”

A clear conscience makes food taste better

Freedom Food has been very successful. Free range and barn egg production has doubled from under a billion eggs in 1994 to over 2.1 billion in 2001. Such eggs now account for 28% of total production compared to just 15% in 1994. Welfare concerns are undoubtedly the driver.

While there is a wealth of data that shows that taste and quality are still the leading drivers for purchasing decisions, there is little evidence that Freedom Food eggs taste better than the competition. However, feedback suggests that people feel better about themselves for buying Freedom Food-labelled products and this in itself can make the food taste better.

US, Canadian schemes modelled around UK

The RSPCA scheme has also proved to be the template for schemes overseas. The American Humane Association’s Free Farmed scheme has been assuring products for two years, basing its standards on the RSPCA but making necessary changes to suit US farming standards. At the moment only a tiny fraction of production is labelled by the group, one million animals out of eight and a half billion slaughtered annually across the country, but consumer awareness is growing.

Spokeswoman Adele Douglass told just-food-com that Free Farmed does not advertise in the same way as Freedom Food as that is left to the individual producers carrying their label, but they were working hard to increase knowledge. “Most US people have no clue about how animals are raised. But we’re doing focus groups and seeing how we can get information to consumers.”

In Canada, the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals started a scheme in May this year, also based on RSPCA principals. Farm Animal Program Coordinator Alyssa Bell Stoneman said that only four producers were currently accredited but told that “consumers are beginning to ask where their food comes from, and are becoming concerned with the way farm animals are treated. We used RSPCA’s Freedom Food standards as a model, and developed standards suitable for Canadian agriculture in conjunction with a species advisory group made up of producers, veterinarians, industry members and animal welfare scientists.”

Organics and sustainability also a factor

Animal welfare is not the only reason why consumers buy labelled products. Organic and environmental concerns are also of significance in making choices. One area that has been in the news lately is fish sustainability. The London-based Marine Stewardship Council certifies fisheries across the globe to ensure that their fish stocks are well looked after and maintained.

Spokeswoman Louisa Barnett told that there is awareness of the issue and that the wording, emphasising that fish comes from a “well-managed fishery” rather than mentioning sustainability makes the issue clear to consumers. The MSC benefits from being the only group accrediting fisheries in this way, and the detailed information on their website means that there is perhaps less confusion in this area than in some of the animal welfare issues discussed above.

It is clear that welfare has become a driver behind consumers’ buying decisions and there is much excellent work being done to ensure that animals are being treated well. However, there has been confusion for consumers in what is an extremely complex area and it is to be hoped that those working on schemes are able to ensure that they are getting their message across.

By Hugh Westbrook, correspondent

Useful websites:

Freedom Food

NFU Little Red Tractor

UK Food Standards Agency

Free Farmed Foods

BC Society for the Prevention of Animals

Marine Stewardship Council