22 July 1999
Farm assurance under fire
By Johann Tasker
ONE of the countrys biggest and fastest-growing farm assurance schemes will be severely criticised tonight during an television documentary on Channel Four.
The programme will be shown days after the governments animal welfare advisers announced a major investigation into farm assurance schemes.
Many egg-laying hens reared to welfare-friendly standards are kept in worse conditions than battery hens, the Countryside Undercover programme will claim.
The programme will criticise the RSPCAs Freedom Food scheme, which sees more than 60 million eggs sold every month under the Freedom Food trademark.
Free-range eggs are marketed to British consumers with images of happy, healthy hens roaming across sunny farmland.
But the reality couldnt be more different, according to Daniel Butler, a smallholder from Wales who helped the programme makers investigate 20 farms.
“It will outrage anyone who has paid a premium for their free-range eggs, believing that the birds were humanely treated,” says the Channel Four website.
The programme, to be shown at 9pm, claims consumers are being hoodwinked by misleading marketing and that the egg-laying birds are often kept in poor conditions.
The RSPCA has issued a statement denying the accusations, claiming that Freedom Food has led the way in establishing minimum standards for laying hens.
“There are no Freedom Food marketing images of chickens roaming freely across open fields,” the statement says.
The claim that free-range hens have scarcely any more room than battery hens is grossly misleading, it continues.
“The only marketing image Mr Butler has been able to identify to us does not support his allegation.”
Most Freedom Food systems have 11.7 hens/m2 compared to 20 hens/m2 in conventional battery systems.
Intensive farming practices, animal welfare issues and farm assurance schemes are all coming under closer scrutiny.
European agriculture ministers meeting in Luxembourg last month approved proposals that will allow a maximum of only 9 hens/m2 from 2012.
Yesterday, the pressure group Compassion in World Farming called for a ban on the controversial practice of tail-docking piglets.
Animal welfare minister Elliot Morley has asked the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) to investigate the relationship between assurance and animal welfare.
Judy MacArthur Clark, FAWC chairman, said most farm assurance schemes were primarily set up to improve food safety rather than animal welfare.
Schemes setting out standards animal welfare standards higher than those specified by the law should bring the greatest benefit to livestock, she said.
But there could be an important role in the future for schemes which merely seek compliance with legislation and welfare codes, she added.
“There is some suggestion that focusing solely on food safety might be detrimental to animal welfare,” she told Farmers Weekly
The FAWC study is expected to last about 12 months and is aiming to report back its findings to ministers before the end of next year.