Spoilt For Choice

5th July 2013

An appeal from the RSPCA to mark Farm Animal Week

It all used to be so simple. A nice roast on Sunday; cold meat and salad on Monday; Tuesday – mince up the rest of the leftover meat and knock up a nice, comforting pie. A few staple recipes to fill Wednesday and Thursday, probably rotated week after week, then fish on Friday. And you were done.

Shopping was simple too. You might have had around 5,000 different products to choose from in your local supermarket. Today, some of the larger supermarkets stock a staggering 40,000 different lines.

And while you wade through this ocean of choice, you can’t just look for what you need. You now also need to weigh up the multiple impacts of your choice. Will buying this pack help struggling coffee bean producers in Ecuador? Will choosing that one cut down on food miles – or will the fact that it was grown in a heated glasshouse in this country be even worse for your carbon footprint than the food miles expended on flying it here from South America? And will you be personally responsible for the destruction of ancient rainforest, as well as the extinction of orang-utans, if you buy that nice packet of chocolate biscuits. It really isn’t simple any more.

Coffee beans, palm oil and ‘heavy footed’ veg aside, there is also farm animal welfare to consider, of course. We are, after all, famously a nation of animal lovers. Survey after survey shows that people really are concerned about the welfare of animals that end up on our plates. But making decisions here can be just as tricky, when so much has conspired to distance us from the realities of livestock farming.

Anyone over the age of fifty remembers when butcher’s shops still flourished on our high streets and we knew what a dead animal looked like. Carcasses hung behind the counter on sturdy steel hooks – sometimes with the head still on. Now, for the greater majority of us, our only encounter with the animal is viewing neatly portioned bits of it through clear shrink wrap packaging. No heads or tails here to connect the food with its source.

Changing lifestyles in the 1970s and 80s had an impact too. Two parents working, no time to cook, ready meals increasingly available – and increasingly edible – and cheap travel sending families abroad to exotic climes rather than spending their holidays in the British countryside. So there is a good chance – and many surveys show this – that children (and not a few adults) have never seen a live farm animal either.

While we are faced with dilemmas when we shop, so was the country’s leading animal welfare charity, the RSPCA, when it set up its farm assurance and food labelling scheme, Freedom Food.

Should it just set welfare standards for free-range systems? After all, many people see free-range as the panacea for all animal welfare ills. But the overwhelming number of animals reared each year for our tables, are reared indoors. And by ignoring indoor rearing, the charity was not going to bring welfare improvements to the animals that needed them most.

So the decision was made to develop welfare standards for free range and indoor systems and the Society, in tandem with leading academic specialists, set about identifying the various behavioural/physical needs of farm animals, whatever system they were reared in. Hens, for example, must have a secluded place to lay their eggs in comfort and safety. They need to be able to dust bathe and scratch, they need to be able to perch and roost. And they can, with proper stockmanship and the right environment, do all these things indoors as well as out.
There were then, however, and there still remain now, types of indoor systems that the RSPCA welfare standards will not cover – such as cages for hens – as they cannot meet the birds’ welfare needs.

Overall, the RSPCA believes that whether an animal is born or reared indoors or outdoors, the key to good animal welfare is good farming – which includes good stockmanship, in an environment that meets the animal’s needs.

When you shop, therefore, if farm animal welfare is one of your concerns – look for the Freedom Food logo. Whatever the system, the animal will have been covered by the RSPCA welfare standards at every stage of its life – on the farm, in transport and at the abattoir.

So while you are still trying to make up your mind about which brand of coffee, which packet of biscuits and whether you’ll opt for home-grown or imported vegetables, you at least have a clear steer when you buy your meat, salmon, poultry and eggs.

Monday 15 July marks the start of Farm Animal Week and the RSPCA’s Freedom Food charity is calling on you to ‘switch one for welfare’ and start as you mean to go on, with just one simple change to your shopping basket. Every time you purchase an RSPCA Freedom Food labelled product you are effectively voting for better welfare standards for the UKs farm animals.

See www.freedomfood.co.uk for more information

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