It is often said that UK farming has the highest welfare standards in the world. It is also stated that UK farmers suffer from their very high levels of compliance with welfare legislation. Like many such statements, these are half-truths.
After Brexit, the whole farming support system will be under review, and opportunities will arise to raise welfare conditions. There is plenty of scope for improvement, just to bring us up to the same standards seen in other countries. I have highlighted many of the UK’s failings below:
Confining pigs in farrowing crates
A farrowing crate is a cage imposed on pregnant sows, confining them for 4-5 weeks (typically twice a year) before, during and after birth. Farrowing crates severely restrict the sow’s movement and frustrate her strong motivation to build a nest before giving birth.
- Farrowing crates are illegal in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. Why not in the UK?
Caging laying hens
Hens in cages live their entire lives in tight confinement with little more space than a single A4 sheet of paper.
- Cages for hens are banned in Switzerland, and being phased out in both Germany and Austria. In the UK, by contrast, 42% of laying hens are still kept in cages.
One of the effects of crowding in cages is pecking of other birds.
- The UK tackles pecking by partial amputation of the hens’ beaks – a practice completely illegal in Sweden and Finland.
Confining dairy cows indoors
Traditionally cows are grazed outside, and many consumers believe that milk and cheese are produced from dairy cows living a natural life.
- In the UK, over 20% of dairy cows are rarely or never allowed outside their barns – a practice illegal in Sweden.
Reduction of growth intensity
Broiler chicken breeds with slower growth benefit both animal and human health because of a reduced need for antibiotics.
- Slow-growing broilers are being widely adopted in Germany, France, and the Netherlands (where all the main supermarkets require this) while the UK is largely ignoring this avenue of progress. 15% of French broilers have the Label Rouge label, with slow-growing, traditional free-range birds, offering higher welfare standards than any UK scheme; less than 5% of UK boiler chickens are free-range or organic. Even in the USA, generally seen as a lower-welfare country for many farm animals, a number of supermarkets are phasing in a requirements for slower-growing breeds.
Indifference to suffering during fish slaughter
EU law requires full regard to be given to animal welfare, and increasingly this is being applied to fish. The Animal Welfare Act covers slaughter, including that of fish.
- Norway requires humane slaughter of farmed fish and the Dutch government is supporting research into the humane killing of wild fish. The UK does not yet have any specific legislation relating to fish slaughter.
Poor implementation of regulations
Even where the regulations are identical, it is a mistake to think that enforcement is better in the UK.
- Tail-docking of pigs, legally permitted by the EU only as a last resort, is used on 70% of pigs in the UK. It is entirely illegal in Sweden and Finland.
- Similarly, tooth-clipping, common in the UK, is banned in many countries. A third of pigs in the UK are kept in barren systems without straw (encouraging boredom, known to be a factor in tail-biting), which would be illegal in Sweden: Sweden is addressing the cause rather than preventing it by painful amputation.
Does this mean that UK standards are generally lower than other countries? No, that would also be an unfair generalisation. It’s a mixed picture, and in some areas, we can be rightly proud of our progress. But it’s patchy, and if a politician tells you that UK standards are the highest in the world and no further improvement is needed, you are being misled.
The reality? The UK and other countries can learn from each other, to achieve the best possible conditions for farm animals. The trend of the market is to demand steady improvement in welfare conditions, and we should not let the UK slip behind its competitors, or undermine existing standards by allowing imports from the lowest-quality systems elsewhere. Food produced with poor welfare is not only bad for the animals, but also bad for the long-term prospect of UK farms.
The UK cannot win a race to the bottom even if we wanted to: there is too much low-welfare, low-cost competition. Compassion in World Farming stands for a consistent drive to make the UK genuinely the best, showing the way ahead to higher welfare, sustainable farming for the rest of the world.