FAWC Report On Farm Welfare: Practicalities of Labelling

By the Farm Animal Welfare Council - This article is part of a report on labelling in relation to the welfare provenance of livestock products. This Report concentrates on the purpose and nature of labelling and its justification, whether such labelling should be voluntary or mandatory, and how best to convey relevant information.
calendar icon 2 June 2006
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Legal basis for labelling (the current national and international legislative position)
  1. There are presently no statutory requirements relating to the welfare provenance of animal-based food products. In respect of food labelling this is currently within the competence of the European Commission and any new food related legislation is a matter for discussion between the 25 Member States. In the United Kingdom the Food Safety Act 1990 sets out the fundamental principles of food law. Secondary legislation made under the Act mainly implements EU law providing detail on matters such as the chemical or microbiological safety of food, food quality, food labelling and advertising, etc.

  2. The WTO is concerned with the rules of trade between nations and does not deal with food information as such. The main international forum that has relevance to international food trade is the Codex Alimentarius Commission, created in 1963 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation / World Health Organisation to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts (codes of practice). Codex has produced a wide range of food standards which are used in the WTO’s disputes procedures.

  3. Codex has recognised the importance of taking into account “other legitimate factors” (OLFs) relevant for the health protection of consumers and for the promotion of fair practices in the food trade” but these are determined on a case-by-case basis. We would argue that animal welfare should be considered as an OLF.

  4. The European Commission has initiated the Welfare Quality project – its remit is the “Integration of animal welfare in the food quality chain: from public concern to improved welfare and transparent quality”. Thirty-nine institutes and universities (representing thirteen European countries) with specialist expertise are participating in this research project which started in May 2004. It is possible that EU legislation relating to animal welfare and the labelling of livestock products will be drawn up as a result of the project’s conclusions. However, it will take five years to complete.

  5. The project aims to accommodate societal concerns and market demands, to develop reliable on-farm monitoring systems, product information systems, and practical speciesspecific strategies to improve animal welfare. Effort is focused on three main species and their products: cattle (beef and dairy), pigs and poultry (broiler chickens and laying hens).

  6. The research program is designed to develop European standards for on-farm welfare assessment and product information systems, as well as practical strategies for improving animal welfare. The standards for on-farm welfare assessment and information systems will be based upon consumer demands, the marketing requirements of retailers and stringent scientific validation. The key is to link informed animal product consumption to animal husbandry practices on the farm. The project therefore adopts a ‘fork to farm’ rather than the traditional ‘farm to fork’ approach.

  7. “Acceptable welfare” tends to evolve with time within a society with standards of welfare leading incrementally to the attainment of higher welfare. Without a system of welfare labelling the distinctions between “unacceptable”, “accepatable” and “higher” welfare cannot be drawn. It is accepted that in the absence of a system of measuring or even ranking welfare across different animal species and production systems, it would be very difficult to demarcate these welfare states particularly the demarcation between “acceptable” and “higher” welfare. “Unacceptable” welfare however is defined as falling below the “minimum welfare standard” enshrined in law.

    Role of UK Government departments

  8. In relation to legislation for food, The Food Standards Agency has lead responsibility in Government for developing general labelling rules and for product-specific legislation on a number of specific foods. Defra leads on marketing standards, which often contain labelling measures, as well as rules on country-of-origin labelling for beef. The Department of Trade and Industry is the lead Department for labelling rules on the net quantity of prepacked foods. This legislation is enforced by local authorities, usually Trading Standards Officers or Environmental Health Officers.

  9. People cannot make maximising decisions if they are poorly informed (or deceived) about the things that they are buying. Indeed, markets cannot function efficiently unless there is adequate information available to both buyers and sellers. The provision of appropriate information can therefore help markets to function better, help consumers and improve their welfare, help producers to better understand the market and their customers (and help them to better produce the goods that the market wants) and so help society generally. Moreover, information is often a ‘public good’ which can be consumed by, and potentially benefit, everyone. Given the importance of information in this context, and the costs of inadequate information and benefits of appropriate information, there is a clear role for government to intervene in the provision of information where it is lacking. Government can do this in a number of ways including (i) providing information itself, (ii) paying for others to provide information, (iii) encouraging others to supply information through education programmes, and (iv) requiring others to supply information through regulation.

    Practical problems of product labelling

  10. The main practical problem of supplying information (including labelling) relates to the ability to provide sound and scientifically based information on the welfare status of animals used to supply particular products. This relates to the whole issue of welfare measurement and the importance of welfare outcomes. Unless we can measure welfare in some reasonably valid way it will not be possible to communicate meaningfully to consumers. For example, information about production systems (e.g. free range) does not necessarily equate to good, better or bad welfare. To give a valid rating to a product would require traceability and welfare audit/measurement of the animals concerned throughout their lives.

  11. Food companies often claim that there is not enough room on the label to provide all the information that people want. While this has some validity for very small packages, a cursory glance at food packaging will demonstrate that non-essential marketing material takes up the majority of space. However, there is a genuine issue in regard to the provision of information about the increasing proportion of our food that is eaten outside the home, particularly from catering outlets.

  12. One practical problem with any assurance scheme, and so potentially a problem with a welfare labelling scheme, is that of equivalence, especially if the system is voluntary and a range of schemes becomes available. How would amber grading in one scheme match up with a bronze, silver or gold grading in another scheme, or, more difficult still, with a 1 to 5 star system? This is already a problem with farm assurance schemes as each scheme may not only have differing standards and concentrate on different criteria of welfare (e.g. disease free vs ability to carry out natural behaviours), but also cover different areas in addition to welfare (e.g. biosecurity, biodiversity, environmental protection and human safety).

    Off-label information

  13. Food retailers are expert communicators, in touch with millions of consumers every day through point-of-sale information, in house magazines, leaflets and websites. In addition, retailers communicate with their customers through a range of other channels, including portal labels, roadshows, customer care helplines and educational packs for schools. The concept of portal labels, which provide a blanket assurance that all food products in store meet a stipulated standard, is gaining credence. Developments in technology may increase the ability of retailers to provide off-label information, although there are cost implications. Such off-label information would enable concerned consumers to inform themselves about the industry’s overall approach. For customers who require more detailed information, retail outlets could hold a copy of a livestock or contract specification manual covering provenance and food production systems.

  14. In practical terms voluntary labelling to a standard scheme may be the best option at present. Mandatory labelling for products from outside of the UK would probably have to be agreed at WTO level. This is where the food retailers could play a particularly powerful role and where consumers could vote with their money and seek only to purchase products with an appropriate welfare ‘label’.

    Welfare of animals from birth to point of slaughter

  15. A welfare label whether it is a simple kite mark or logo on livestock product should, at the very least, be a reliable indicator that the welfare of the animal was acceptable at every stage of the food chain, including pre-birth, on-farm, in transit, at market and at slaughter. The legislation and codes of practice set the parameters for acceptable welfare. Defra has just published its Animal Welfare Bill (as has SEERAD) which brings together and modernises legislation relating to farmed and non-farmed animals, some of which dates from 1911. Compliance with the legislation is a duty for all animal keepers and the new legislation will increase the effectiveness of law enforcement for animal welfare offences.

    Verification of information

  16. A clear, consistent, objective and appropriate system for third party welfare audit, traceability, assurance and accreditation needs to be devised in consultation with stakeholders. This will ensure that products with welfare labels do indeed have their animal welfare provenance indicated.

    Role of Farm Assurance

  17. The FAWC report on the Welfare Implications of Farm Assurance Schemes (2005) concluded that farm assurance schemes have not yet delivered all the benefits they could in terms of acceptable animal welfare, to a large extent because the food retailing and food service sectors have not sufficiently embraced their aims or applied their procedures wholeheartedly across their product range. It was felt that a number of requirements still needed to be met for farm assurance schemes to reach their full potential in delivering welfare benefits. Some of the requirements most pertinent in this context such as: the acceptance in ethical terms for acceptable welfare; acceptance in negotiations that the treatment of animals cannot be separated from the food products that they supply; and the need for the household consumer to have relevant information to exercise a preference for welfare friendly livestock products have been further explored in this report.

  18. The need for development of better methods of assessing animal welfare that are consistent with the nature and time constraints of farm inspections is also central to the question of welfare labelling. Research on practically based welfare assessment is still at an early stage of development with much of the research still in the process of collecting data.

  19. The validity and reliability of welfare indicators are a critical element in effective welfare assessment. Current initiatives to incorporate more animal based measures into assessment schemes, which are quick and efficient to use, should lead to improvement in the quality of welfare assessment and farm assurance schemes. Suppliers should have robust and credible assurance schemes, working to clearly defined animal welfare standards producing unambiguous traceability to farm origin with clear enforcement procedures.

  20. There are now a significant number of countries around the world exporting fresh, frozen and processed meat based products into the UK. The general consensus amongst consumers would be that these products are produced from livestock reared to significantly lower welfare standards than UK sourced. However, this is not necessarily always the case and it is equally possible for imported products to be produced to higher welfare standards than practised in the UK.

  21. There is also a widespread view amongst consumers that free range and organic production standards ensure the best in animal welfare, in excess of other farm standards and legislation. This, again, is not always the case. If organic producers wish their livestock products to be marked with the Red Tractor, they must comply with the additional requirements laid down by Assured Food Standards before they can display the logo.

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Source: Farm Animal Welfare Council - June 2006
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