It is now 15 years since the RSPCA made a fundamental shift in its relationship with the farming sector, when it launched the Freedom Food initiative.

The scheme can only be considered a success, with 365m farmed animals currently covered by the Freedom Food scheme across nine species groups, and over 520 labelled products on shelves throughout the country. Over 95% of eggs produced in the UK from alternative systems are Freedom Food, claims the RSPCA, while for broilers the figure is 8% and “growing all the time”.

But what does the industry really think of it and where does it go from here?

Fifteen years down the line, it has evolved into something of a love-hate relationship. The RSPCA/Freedom Food has had its horns locked with both the layer and broiler industries over the issue of stocking densities this year, and there are those in the industry who have openly criticised the RSPCA’s stance.

The stand-off with the laying sector was only resolved last month, when the RSPCA agreed that range stocking densities could be increased from 1000 to 2000/ha (with a number of conditions attached). But this was not before BFREPA chairman Tom Vesey had accused the RSPCA of “being difficult”, while NFU chief poultry advisor Rob Newbery had warned that Freedom Food could lose its influence in the free range sector.

Meanwhile in the broiler sector, the RSPCA launched a campaign at the end of the summer called “Quash the Squash,” aiming to dissuade DEFRA from increasing permitted stocking densities for broilers in line with new EU rules, in opposition to the NFU and British Poultry Council.

Freedom Food chief executive Leigh Grant says: “The issue on range stocking rates was interesting because the original rates were not based on science, and were put forward by the industry because it wanted at the time (1994) to have a point of difference.

“What’s difficult from the RSPCA’s point of view is when you want to change an existing standard to something that will be perceived by many as a negative change. Changes will always be considered, but need a scientific basis. Having made the first move without science it was difficult to make the second move.

“That was a tricky one, and I don’t thing we’ve got any more like that in the cupboard,” said Mr Grant, “but the standards are always going to be about the stretching end of achievable, that’s the thing that adds the value.

“It does at times bring us into potential conflict, but hopefully that can be managed through the standards setting process. The basic principle with which we should approach standards is in absolute consultation with the industry,” stressed Mr Grant.

The potential for friction was recognised from the very beginning: “We had great plans to improve animal welfare by properly engaging and working with the farming industry – something that had previously been thought impossible,” says its first chief executive Mike Sharpe.

Until then it was an organisation chiefly viewed by producers as a potentially troublesome body that they wanted as little to do with as possible. Even Freedom Food admits that the RSPCA connection didn’t help the scheme’s cause with farmers one bit.

“Far from it,” says Mr Sharpe. “I’d have to say that there was little trust from farmers of Freedom Food or its association with the RSPCA. Inspectors were still seen as the animal police and out to get producers, so we faced a long battle to win any of them over at all.”

Opposition to the scheme didn’t just come from the farming sector. “We had more than our fair share of objections from important figures at the RSPCA too,” says Sir Michael Simmons, a founder member of the Freedom Food board. “There were those who didn’t think we should be working in partnership with an industry where welfare issues were such a major concern.”

However, it is the lack of a cosy relationship that makes the scheme so successful. One processor who joined up in 2002 puts his finger on why the industry is prepared to go along with it.

“It’s brilliant to have the stamp of approval from the RSPCA for what we do – there’s no one better respected by the public in terms of animal welfare,” says Andrew Maunder of Lloyd Maunder (now called 2 Sisters Willand), in Devon

“When I found out what Freedom Food stood for and could help deliver, I signed up right away. It was exactly what I’d been looking for. In recent years I’ve done lots of promotion with the scheme and the retailers to help develop more understanding of the commercial benefits of higher welfare production and how small changes can make such a big difference.”

“It’s all about getting out there and letting people know the choices they have. I’d like to think we could get to the point where more people choose a chicken in the same way they choose a bottle of wine. With a little knowledge, you can find the right quality at the price that is right for you. We need well-informed consumers with a choice of products so that they can choose accordingly and looking for the Freedom Food logo is helping to do just that.”

Another reason why the scheme works in practice is that its credibility with the public makes it appealing to retailers, when so many industry initiatives struggle to get recognised.

Sue Henderson, brand integrity and sustainability manager for Sainsbury’s, comments: “Freedom Food’s approach is sensible and that works. The RSPCA standards are achievable and credible, covering a wide range of farming methods – encouraging a rise in welfare standards across the board. Members share best practice and coupled with latest scientific research they provide a powerful way of ensuring the standards evolve in a direction that is right for animals and sustainable for producers.”

The first to fall in with the scheme were Co-operative supermarkets and they remain one of the scheme’s most ardent supporters. Senior technical manager Andrew Nicholson says: “We are proud to have launched the very first Freedom Food labelled product in 1994 and we have maintained our support of the scheme ever since”

Looking ahead, current strategy is to work with retailers to reach consumers, rather than directly, explains Mr Grant. “If you look over the last 12 months, the number of times Freedom Foods has been featured on TV ads is completely new for us.

“But one of the concerns we’ve had over the years is that while we can do that very easily with retailers, it is quite a different story when it comes to foodservice. This is clearly a huge market with, in many cases, lots of product being brought in from overseas.”

So earlier this year the “Simply Ask” campaign was launched, at the moment focussed entirely on eggs.

This campaign urges consumers to start “holding restaurants to account” by demanding to know if they use eggs from hens that have not been kept in cages. Simply Ask will be an ongoing campaign throughout 2010 and beyond.

Looking ahead to the next 15 years, Mr Grant wants to see an “an industry that really values RSPCA and Freedom food, and where there’s mutual respect, where there’s a win-win situation improving both animal welfare and the lot of the producer. We have to move away from his nonsense of food being commoditised, and farmers not getting a sensible income.”

The poultry industry has been at the heart of Freedom Food since the start. DayLay Eggs in Tring, Hertfordshire (now Noble Foods) holds the honour of registration number 0001 as the very first member of Freedom Food.

“I remember those early pioneering days well,” says Noble Foods technical director Andrew Joret. “The dialogue that resulted and the standards developed have helped shape the industry in the last 15 years to where we are today, with almost 40% of the egg market free-range.

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