The UK Government will tell you that we have some of the best animal welfare standards in the world. We are hailed as a nation of animal lovers – and in common consciousness a typical British farm would probably evoke imagery of lush green pastures and animals happily grazing the day away.
The UK: a world leader for animal welfare?
In part, the concept of the UK as a world leader for animal welfare carries some truth. The achievements which have been made over the years since the dawn of large-scale, ‘industrial’ farming have been monumental in their outcomes on the welfare of farm animals. Compassion in World Farming was instrumental in the banning of the veal crate in 1990, which meant that calves were no longer confined into such a tight space they couldn’t turn around, often tied by the neck, and fed low-quality feed which made their flesh turn a notorious white colour. This was one of the first of a string of victories in the ongoing fight against farming systems which are cruel to animals.
This may not come as a surprise, but these victories haven’t always been met with delight from industry bodies who represent farmers and producers. Mostly, because the cruel practices of intensive farming such as veal crates, battery cages, sow stalls, and mutilations are the very means which enable factory farming – with its high output, ‘productivity-above-all-else’ mentality - to exist in the first place.
Washing its hands of animal welfare responsibilities
‘Deregulation’ - an ugly word, with an uglier meaning: Liz Truss, the environment secretary, is overseeing moves to scrap the statutory codes on farm animal welfare and move to an ‘industry-led’ guidance instead. A Government which prides itself on how much it cares for animals is handing over the reins to protect animal welfare to the very people who threaten it - all the while vigorously patting itself on the back for coming up with such an ingenious plan.
The Government’s welfare codes have long been a useful addition to UK legislation on farm animal welfare, because they provide guidance to farmers on how to achieve better welfare in a practical and accessible way. Anyone who has ever tried to read a legislative text will recognise the feeling of frustration in trying to decipher what almost feels like intentionally confusing jargon – so these codes are a helpful way of understanding what the government is trying to achieve.
Many practices which are so detrimental to animal welfare are seen by the intensive farming industry as essential. Piglets in the cramped conditions of a factory farm often chew each-others’ tails off out of boredom and frustration. Instead of providing a more stimulating environment, it is common for intensive farmers to dock piglets' tails. The Government’s Code of Recommendations for the welfare of pigs, for example, states that the painful procedure of tail-docking should only be carried out as a last resort. It is hard to imagine that an intensive farmer’s definition of ‘last resort’ would be the same as ours, or indeed, government officials. The way tail-docking is handled is the perfect example of how we can expect things to change should the deregulation go forward.
Seeing these codes scrapped and re-hashed in the hands of the industry is a serious step backwards. The industry, especially the pig and poultry industry, is sadly dominated by intensive farming. What signal is the government sending, when they are willing to let those who treat animals as products decide what’s best for them? As Animal Aid’s Andrew Tyler rightly put it: ‘How can the industry be trusted to enforce animal welfare regulations? It’s like leaving them to mark their own homework.’
We know that many farmers do care deeply about the welfare of the animals they keep. The issue here is that these farmers are unlikely to have a say in how these new codes will be set. At a time where public concern and awareness for the welfare of farmed animals is at its highest, the government has decided to relinquish the reins and give up, undoing all the hard-earned progress we’ve made in improving the lives of the animals we call ‘food.’