As we approach our exit from the EU at the end of the year, much emphasis is rightly being placed on the type of trade deals we can negotiate, especially with countries like the USA.
Whilst there is much discussion on chlorinated chicken and hormone treated cattle - from which we must be protected - there are advances in welfare standards in the UK that also need to be safeguarded and further improved upon with the right trading conditions in place.
The UK has largely adopted species-specific EU legislation for animal welfare, and in some instances has gone a step further. For example, sow stalls were completely banned in 1999, as opposed to a partial ban in Europe which came later in 2013, and maximum stocking densities for broiler chickens were set at a slightly lower level in 2007 (39kg/m2 compared to 42).
Recent advances in farm animal welfare have been led by key UK food companies and producers who must not be undermined by unfair trade deals. There is real progress on several fronts which needs to be protected.
Advancing the cage-free egg move
The use of cages for egg-laying hens is declining and suppliers are aware that most supermarkets will no longer accept them within the next five years.
To date, over 70 UK companies (including all the major supermarkets) have made 2025 cage-free egg commitments, and for some this includes the ‘hidden egg’ in processed foods and ingredients, as well as shell eggs.
Compassion has worked closely with the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) to introduce a new higher welfare standard for UK barn egg production - a popular option for the value egg market, especially for producers converting out of caged production.
The new barn standard significantly improves on EU legislation that permits the use of high stocking densities and highly intensive systems such as Combi systems and is much higher than the KAT system commonly used across Europe.
The increasing acceptance of the Better Chicken standard across the industry is an extremely welcome step forward.
Over 50 companies in the UK have now signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) and are currently investigating supply chain solutions to introduce the higher welfare criteria for broiler chickens, by 2026.
Nando’s and Greggs were the latest high street chains to sign up to the BCC and KFC recently released their first Chicken Welfare Report documenting their progress towards introducing the higher welfare BCC criteria for their broiler chickens.
To enable the transition, the UK’s Red Tractor Assurance Scheme has launched a new Enhanced Welfare module and marque which meets the higher welfare criteria of the BCC and provides a ready-made third-party audit for companies wishing to source to this standard, alongside RSPCA Assured.
Supporting free farrowing
We understand from Government sources that farrowing crates are to be phased out in the UK, potentially with the Government providing financial assistance to farmers as they convert to free farrowing systems. This is a major step forward addressing the confinement of sows, a move that is also starting to happen in Germany.
All these positive steps could now be under threat if trade deals permit products to enter the UK that are produced to lower welfare standards.
Maintaining high standards
Some UK retailers are already making positive statements about upholding their higher welfare and food safety standards post Brexit, which for some are above legislation. Many of them back British farms for their fresh meat, dairy and eggs and we encourage them to broaden their welfare commitments to include ingredient products too.
It is vitally important that equivalent standards are met for all British and imported food post Brexit.
Positive moves on labelling
Most consumers want to know where their food has come from and have the ability to choose products that ensure higher welfare standards.
Compassion has submitted proposals for the promised Government review of labelling showing means of production which is expected before the end of this year. Method of production labelling is an important driver for higher welfare as it will help consumers confidently choose products from farms that have adopted the best standards.
We are also calling for country of origin labelling to encourage support for domestic farmers, and to help reduce food miles and its effect on the environment.
The Government has the opportunity right now to protect against food that does not match our standards of food safety, and to rule out deals accepting low welfare imports.
They also have the opportunity to promote food produced to genuinely higher welfare standards, and standards that protect the environment and climate, through their “public money for public goods” approach which will be introduced in the coming years, as well as directly through their public procurement strategy.
There is a broad consensus that British farming cannot win a “race to the bottom” on welfare standards: rather, by establishing Britain as world leaders, a sustainable position can be maintained in both domestic markets and exports.
The decisions being made now and over the coming years will be crucial to making this a real success which is not only important for consumers who expect high standards of animal welfare and want to support British farmers, but for the millions of animals we have worked so hard to protect.
Read our latest Infographic to find out more about the differences between animal welfare and food safety standards in the USA and UK.