Farmers and campaigners have condemned a government u-turn, which has seen ministers ditching plans to introduce mandatory animal welfare labels based on method of production, for chicken meat and pork products.
This took place within days of the German Bundestag’s decision to introduce mandatory method of production labelling.
Speaking to The Times Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said that by abandoning the consultation “the government has hammered another nail into the coffin of its animal welfare policy agenda.”
Mandatory labelling of shell eggs has existed in the UK since 2004, but is currently the only example of mandatory farm system labelling on an animal-derived product. The labelling system was so successful that in 2014 the British Egg Industry Council called on the government to extend mandatory labelling to products with eggs as the main ingredient, such as quiches and egg sandwiches.
In addition, a system of voluntary method of production labelling for pork products was introduced by the British Pig Council in 2010 and has been in place ever since. By 2015 around 40% of UK pigs were born outdoors and assured as ‘outdoor bred’, ‘outdoor reared’, ‘free-range’, or ‘organic’. Around a third were RSPCA Assured.
Labelling has also proved highly popular with customers. It has enabled easy point of sale comparison and allowed consumers to support farm systems with greater welfare potential. In 2013 a survey showed that 83% of UK customers wanted to see labelling extended to all meat and dairy products.
Correspondence from officials at Defra said that while the evidence collected during an early-stage consultation showed that public support for animal welfare labelling was strong, the government has decided not to proceed with plans to introduce new labels.
Defra said “The evidence provided suggested that there is public appetite for improved welfare labelling. However, we do not consider the time is right to consult on proposals to reform labelling for animal welfare.”
Emma Slawinski, director of policy, prevention and campaigns at the RSPCA, also spoke to The Times. She said “We are deeply disappointed by the news that Defra has decided to ditch plans to consult on animal welfare labelling on food products. Currently there is little information available to consumers to show them how farm animals have been reared.”
Fidelity Weston is the chair of CLEAR, a UK consortium of 47 food, farming, civil society organisations and businesses working together for better labelling for the environment, animal welfare and regenerative farming.
She said “In 2020, during the passage of the Agriculture Act, Lord Gardiner committed to deliver “informative food and drink labelling and marketing standards to protect consumer interests.”
“Three years on, it is disappointing that there has been very little progress. We believe that the only way that the government can provide the transparency and level playing field it wishes to see is to implement a mandatory labelling system whereby information on how our food is farmed is made mandatory information for all food labels at all point of sale.
“There is much that industry and the market can do to improve food information for consumers but these changes will only be truly transparent and trustworthy if it is based on an independently established holistic method of production approach as advocated by CLEAR.
“Currently, the lack of action from the British government is leaving a policy black-hole being filled
with unregulated eco-labels with a high potential of consumer misinformation and greenwashing.”