18 August 2018 | Online since 2003

21 April 2005

Cautious backing for RSPCA assurance scheme

One of the country’s leading farm animal welfarists believes the RSPCA’s Freedom Food assurance scheme has led to good welfare standards for free range hens.

Commenting on farm assurance schemes at a conference organised by Compassion in World Farming, Professor John Webster said that while shoppers could set their own standards for qualities such as appearance, taste and price, they had to take other things on trust, such as source, food safety and production standards, including animal welfare.

“This has generated a plethora of farm assurance schemes ranging from the Little Red Tractor to organic standards set by the Soil Association and Freedom Food welfare standards set by the RSPCA,” said the professor from the University of Bristol’s department of clinical veterinary science.

“The intention is that both consumers and producers should benefit from a system that adds value based on the quality of the production methods. Organic food standards—which include a proper concern for animal welfare—have been conspicuously successful,” he said.

“Standards based strictly on animal welfare have not yet fared so well, with the notable exception of free-range egg production according to the Freedom Food standards that now make up about half of total egg sales in many UK Supermarkets.”

Professor Webster told delegates that the most important question for consumers, and indeed the animals, was ‘Do these welfare-assurance schemes deliver what they claim to deliver?’ Do they, he went on, ensure good standards of animal welfare? Ensure better standards of animal welfare than on unassured farms? Address specific welfare problems as they occur and incorporate a protocol for regular review and upgrading of standards?

“At present, the answer to all these questions is either ‘No’ or ‘Don’t know’,” he said. “Nearly all current standards are based on measures of the resources and records necessary to promote good husbandry. This is good in so far as it goes but it fails to address the most important questions ‘Are the animals fit and how do they feel?’

“At Bristol, my colleagues David Main, Becky Whay and I have developed animal-based protocols for the direct assessment of animal welfare outcomes. These have been used as an independent audit of the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme.

“To summarise our published and unpublished work very briefly I can say that the welfare of the free-range hens in our study, in general, looked good but dairy cows had their problems, especially lameness whether or not the farms were accredited to Freedom Food or organic standards.”

But the professor—who, in 1981, first proposed the ‘Five Freedoms’ that are now widely accepted as the benchmark for assessing animal welfare—did not simply heap the blame on farmers and conference-goers were told: “The responsibility to animals as stakeholders in society is shared by us all.

“We cannot take the cable car to the high moral ground and, at no personal cost, harangue the farmers as cruel profiteers.

“Very few are cruel and very few are making a profit. Standards must be set by all who, directly or indirectly, derive any value from the exploitation of animals to suit our ends, whether for food, clothing, sport or companionship.”


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