Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recognises that 'the public is increasingly interested in where food comes from'. He has promised to lobby Europe on the issue, but in the meantime wants companies to sign up to a voluntary country of origin labelling scheme.
However, Stan McCarthy, CEO of Kerry Foods recently told me that he was not keen even on this voluntary country of origin label, preferring to preserve the company's present lack of labelling on products like Walls, Richmond and Mattesons sausages.
And who can blame him? His company has to compete with the other manufacturers that sell the cheapest pork without labels, and no one will jump first if they don’t have to. And let's face it - a label disclosing that the pork in your sausage comes from all over the EU is not good PR. Voluntary labelling means manufacturers will probably ignore it.
But even is this country of origin labelling were made mandatory, how many members of the general public know that the UK has more humane methods than any other EU country except Sweden? Or that Spain and Belgium are the least humane? My guess is not many.
Forget country of origin; go welfare
Most surveys show that consumers want to know about the method of production of the pork they buy. So why isn’t the Government pressing for mandatory welfare labelling as well as country of origin labelling?
None of the politicians at the recent Oxford Farming Conference would support this. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shadow minister, Nick Herbert, said that, on top of all the other information, adding welfare details to packets might create an information ‘fog’.
Having no welfare labels on products makes good business sense because it hides from the consumer the uncomfortable fact that, unless it says otherwise, the pork has most probably been raised in horrendous conditions in factory farms where any animal welfare laws, are routinely broken, particularly on the continent.
A recent report for BPEX, the British pig producer’s organisation, found that about half of UK consumers believe that pigs are ‘fairly’ well-treated. This lack of clarity is a public relations success for the meat industry.
A recent Compassion in World Farming report found that between 70 and 100 per cent of the farms they inspected in four European countries deprived the pigs of enrichment material such as straw to enable them to engage in their natural behaviours. Without a welfare label, who is to know that a label that says ‘produce of Spain’ has flesh from a pig raised in horrendous conditions?
British pigs disappearing
While the UK Government introduced higher animal welfare standards for UK farmers by banning sow crates, it failed to protect them in any way from pork raised to lower standards on the continent. So not only has it forced our farmers to cram more animals in their sheds to compete with cheap imports but it has resulted in a great many bankruptcies for farmers who cannot or simply refused to join this race to the bottom in terms of animal welfare. Consequently we have lost almost half of our pig herd in the past twelve years.
The playing field may be somewhat levelled in 2013 when new laws in Europe will limit the time continental sows will spend in crates, but they will still spend 20 weeks of the year in crates, far longer than their English cousins who spend 10 days in crates at farrowing (giving birth). By the time this legislation comes into force, our pig herds may have dwindled to zero.
The question is how do we protect our more humane pig producers from further bankruptcy and help the others improve? Do we leave it entirely to the market, expecting people confronted with country of origin and method of production labelling and hope the consumer goes for UK labels? Hoping, perhaps, that with secure markets our farmers could raise their method of production to the RSPCA welfare standard of Freedom Food, or better still, free range, outdoor reared or organic?
Is it fair that some people would still continue to buy a product that said ‘Spanish - offspring of a sow in a crate’ if it was much cheaper? And buy one labelled: ‘UK - intensive confinement conditions’ if it was much cheaper? Should it even be an option? Should our caterers and procurers be allowed to buy the cheapest EU and UK low welfare products and supply them to consumers who have no choice, such as school children or hospital patients?
Led by chickens
I would like to see us go down the same road as legislation on battery hens. Since people have continued to buy eggs labelled as coming from battery hens, environment secretary Hilary Benn has demanded an EU ban on battery hens. And if any country produces battery hens, they cannot be exported out of the producer country.
Why not do this with pig meat: a ban on the import of pig meat that has been produced to lower standards than our sow stall ban? And every time we increase the standards, i.e. up to Freedom Food standard, the imports must conform.
The idea is not fanciful; David Cameron has proposed a similar one when interviewed for my film, Pig Business:
'Just as we don’t accept cars that aren’t meeting our emission standards, so we shouldn’t accept food that doesn’t meet our welfare standards.'
Sadly, at the Oxford Farming Conference, Cameron's environment minister, Nick Herbert, put the free trade agenda first:
'I do believe in free trade and free markets and the power of consumer choice and I think you have to intervene in those markets with care,' he said.
On the contrary, intervening in the free market is necessary. If your country’s animal welfare standards are higher; if you want to protect the health of your nation from the myriad human health impacts of factory farming; if your food security is, as an island state, threatened by cheaper imports, then I believe intervention is necessary and justified.
Changes of legislation and labelling will, of course, be slow. But changes in our buying habits need not be. In a nut shell, we must avoid any unlabelled meat in the supermarket and shop and, if possible, go direct to the farmer at the farmers' market or via the internet. Consumer power can protect our pigs, health, farmers and democracy.
As Robert Kennedy says in my film:
'There is no single magic bullet for solving the great problem that we face now. You have to use all of the tools of activism that Martin Luther King talked about, which is litigation, legislation and agitation. Part of the puzzle is that people buy locally. That is a very potent form of activism – to say to the Walmarts of this world, we are not going to buy from you, we are going to buy in the local farmers’ market.'
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