In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the relationship between the farming industry and the RSPCA was far from brilliant. There were important figures at the RSPCA who didn’t think we should be talking to, or working with an industry about which there were such significant welfare concerns. And farmers generally thought the RSPCA were the ‘animal police’ out to get them and didn’t trust the organisation at all. Despite this backdrop, a small group of people including Alistair Mews, then the Deputy Chief Vet and head of the Farm Animals Department at the RSPCA and Mike Sharpe the first Chief Executive of Freedom Food saw that the only way to make significant improvements in animal welfare was to engage with the industry and show that there was an alternative, practical and higher-welfare way forward that benefitted everyone.
They started with a blank sheet of paper and by the scheme’s launch in 1994 there was one member, Day Lay Eggs of Tring, and RSPCA welfare standards for laying hens and pigs. Bowes of Norfolk were the first pig enterprise to sign up later that same year. These were the pioneering companies who were prepared to take the plunge with a farm assurance and food labelling scheme monitored by the RSPCA. Both companies - now part of bigger operations - are members of the scheme today and have witnessed the way that the RSPCA welfare standards have helped to shape the industry. Nearly 20 years later about 50% of UK laying hens are either barn, free-range, or organic, (the majority reared under the Freedom Food scheme) and about 28% of UK reared pigs are reared under the Freedom Food scheme – including about ¾ of all outdoor pig production.
The last 19 years haven’t just been about pigs and hens. The meat we, as a nation, eat most frequently is chicken – and there are still significant welfare issues to be addressed here. The RSPCA welfare standards for chicken were introduced in 1996, but by 2008 there was very little uptake so the significant welfare problems associated with fast growing breeds, poor lighting, a lack of environmental enrichment and too high stocking densities were not being addressed for the majority of birds making it to our table. Then came Jamie Oliver’s and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s TV programmes.
The public’s reaction was significant – the supermarket shelves ran out of Freedom Food labelled chicken. The supermarkets pledged to do more to improve the welfare of their chicken - by 2010, the proportion of fresh chicken sold in UK supermarkets carrying the Freedom Food logo was 7%. Sadly, by 2011, this number dropped to 5% with only a total of 13% of all the chicken sold in UK supermarkets being either Freedom Food labelled indoor, free-range or organic or other free range or organic labelled birds.
Some supermarkets have made tentative strides forward with their ‘value’ chicken ranges – introducing a little more space, including natural light – it is tantalisingly close to good news. Unfortunately, none of the non-Freedom Food labelled own-ranges meet all the 500+ RSPCA welfare standards that are required of Freedom Food approved farms including the use of a slower growing breed. But we are hopeful that the benefits of rearing chicken to the RSPCA’s welfare standards will encourage supermarkets to make the additional steps to offer a Freedom Food indoor chicken as an affordable higher-welfare choice for their customers alongside premium Freedom Food labelled free range lines.
Freedom Food and the RSPCA have helped make significant strides in moving farm animal welfare forward. Working with the farming industry, retailers, food service companies and the vets and welfare scientists to keep standards evolving and improving has meant the lives of many farm animals have been improved. But there is an awfully long way to go.