Two weeks ago, Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote an explosive blog laying bare the reality of chicken production in the UK.
The sad truth is that the majority of chickens reared for meat in the UK are diseased, unfit and sick. Because of cramped conditions and obesity, leg disorders are common. In fast-growing breeds, the development of birds’ bodies cannot keep pace with their weight gain, making walking painful. Most move around only when absolutely necessary to reach food or water. Towards the end of what the industry calls their ‘growth cycle’, or just before slaughter, they spend most of the time sitting or lying down. Some are in such poor shape they can barely walk; the meat chicken is a bird genetically selected to suffer.
Of course, the industry had something to say about this. The NFU (National Farmers’ Union) wrote a letter to The Guardian disagreeing with George on the grounds of the majority of chicken meeting Red Tractor standards.
In response, George wrote another blog, this time urging us to wean ourselves off the fairy tale fantasy version of farming many of us envisage takes place in this country. George referenced a report my organisation conducted which looked very closely at Red Tractor Standards. In 2012, Compassion and OneKind analysed the standards of the major farm assurance schemes in England and Scotland. The report compares the schemes and what they really mean in terms of animal welfare. The Red Tractor scheme ranked lowest in the study and was often found to offer little more on animal welfare than compliance with minimum legislation.
George says: “In my view, the Red Tractor standard is a classic example of an almost meaningless label, whose purpose is to reassure customers in a vague and fuzzy way while holding producers to standards that scarcely rise above the legal minimum.”
Red Tractor were not happy about this and according to The Grocer they claimed that Compassion’s evaluation of Red Tractor was “clearly prejudiced” and “ill-informed”.
I would like to come back to Red Tractor on their claims. Our analysis was thorough and comprehensive, using clear methodology. In our view, minimum legislation often falls well short of what can be deemed good or higher welfare, allowing for some of the worst factory farm systems and practices. For this reason, our analysis looked at the level to which farm assurance schemes insist on higher standards or simply assure compliance with the minimum. I call on all national farm assurance schemes to back any higher welfare claims with standards that go above and beyond minimum legislative requirements. I believe this is what the buying public would expect from any scheme claiming to assure high standards of welfare.
George Monbiot is right about Red Tractor; all too often their standards assure little more than compliance with minimum government guidelines. If you want to support a better way of farming for animals, our planet and our health please buy organic, free-range or RSPCA Freedom Food – all of which offer farm animals the greatest potential for a better life. Also, make meat a treat, reduce how much you eat and when you do make sure it’s higher welfare.