THE BLOG

Defra: Please Don't Keep Us in the Dark About the Food We Buy

16/07/2013 16:48 BST | Updated 15/09/2013 10:12 BST

Scandals such as the horsemeat debacle and more recently Bovine Tuberculosis-infected cattle sneaking into the food chain, spooked a lot of consumers, and understandably so. The horsemeat scandal alone led to a devastating drop in consumer confidence.

I think the reason for this crisis of confidence was bigger than just horse DNA in burgers and ready meals - it was the unsettling thought that followed, "what else don't I know about what I'm eating?" or, for those with families, "what am I feeding my kids?".

You'd think the government would be looking for every opportunity to reassure consumers, by helping us to get as much information as possible about what we're buying. You'd think wrong, I'm afraid.

Around 90% of chickens and pigs reared for food in the European Union are factory farmed in cramped and barren systems - and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) seems determined to ensure that this truth is hidden from consumers, in the UK and across the European Union.

New independent research is challenging that position. This research was commissioned by Labelling Matters, a campaign that my charity, Compassion in World Farming, is a part of.

It shows that 83% of the British public want to know how the meat and dairy products they buy are produced.

It proves that consumers are hungry for more knowledge when buying meat and dairy products. In particular, consumers support 'method of production' labelling, which indicates what farming system was used, for example free range, barn or intensive. It stands to reason that we want to know more about what we are buying, especially as food is about the most important thing we buy.

We've seen this before:

Method of production labelling has been legally required for eggs sold in the EU since 2004. Since then all shell eggs have had to be labelled as 'eggs from caged hens', 'barn eggs', 'free range', or 'organic'. As well as giving consumers more information, this simple change has dramatically increased the number of eggs produced in cage-free systems. Last month, the EU agreed to introduce method of catch labelling for fish products.

More transparency leads to greater consumer confidence. It could also mean a big increase in the number of farm animals reared in higher welfare systems. Everyone's a winner.

To rebuild consumer trust in food, we need honesty and clarity about where it actually comes from. Instead, Defra is blocking this clear labelling of meat and dairy products and is actively pushing the European Commission to keep consumers in the dark.

The question is why?

Defra's position is based on a flawed 2010 study, which failed to consider the EU mandatory egg labelling scheme and wrongly assumed that higher welfare can be achieved in all farming systems, including factory systems. The study's conclusions were based on the opinions of just 96 people, and found that labelling would have a limited effect on consumers.

Astonishingly, UK Farming Minister David Heath seems unaware of existing labelling schemes for food.

He claims that the significant swing in recent years to free range egg production is a good example of how voluntary labelling can be successful. As explained, the egg labelling scheme is mandatory, which is precisely why it has proved important and resulted in more hens living cage-free lives.

In letters, Mr Heath has claimed that it would be extremely difficult to define a method of production for meat animals, but terms already exist for chicken and pigs. EU law defines methods of production for all but factory-farmed meat chickens, and the UK pig industry has agreed marketing terms for all but factory-farmed pigs.

Mr Heath has also said that because animals can be moved, method of production is too difficult to define. In fact broiler chickens stay in the same system throughout their lives, and many pigs stay in the same farm system too. Where pigs do move, for example from an outdoor to an indoor system at weaning, the UK scheme has developed terms that cater for this.

David Heath seems more interested in protecting vested interests in the food industry than the interests of ordinary consumers. This is a great pity - instead he should be supporting moves that enable us all to make informed decisions about what we buy. That's not too much to ask, is it?

The full research report can be found here.