The UK prides itself on its animal welfare practices, but the list of undercover exposés of violent acts is growing. Are standards falling?

“Cruel country”, read a scathing Times editorial in April, following the latest in a growing list of disturbing exposés of alleged animal welfare breaches on British farms.

Undercover filming by campaign group Animal Equality appeared to show staff at a Scottish pig farm inflicting a series of violent acts on its animals. The litany of cruel treatment at the farm included a worker appearing to hammer pigs to death, alongside numerous examples of badly injured and sick animals.

But what was even more alarming about the P&G Sleigh case was the fact it was owned by Quality Meat Scotland board member Phillip Sleigh, who had also helped draw up the body’s own welfare standards.

It followed a series of welfare scandals in recent years, with similar investigations by campaigners putting standards under the spotlight across the meat, poultry, egg and dairy sectors.

In contrast to the long-held claim trotted out by ministers that the UK was a “world leader” in animal welfare, The Times wrote “Britain is now rapidly falling behind its European counterparts, despite claims Brexit would allow [it] to strengthen its rules”.

So have standards fallen? What’s being done to improve them, and does the UK still have the right to claim its standards are world-beating?

Good credentials

Farming bodies such as the NFU and National Pig Association have repeatedly hammered home the UK’s credentials in animal welfare.

NFU president Minette Batters highlighted the UK’s purported superiority in this field as a key principle to be protected in free trade talks with Australia, although she also raised concerns, after the government published its action plan for animal welfare in May, over proposed improvements to welfare regulations (see box below). They “could raise the bar at home, without any certainty the same standards will be applied to imports”, she warned.

Quality Meat Scotland, which suspended P&G Sleigh (it was also ditched by processor Pilgrim’s UK and main retail partner Tesco), says the alleged actions of the producer, now subject to a criminal investigation, are not representative of those found across both the Scottish and wider UK red meat sector. “We are a world leader and very proud of that,” insists CEO Alan Clarke.

The UK red meat industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the world and has a strong heritage of professional animal welfare practices

QMS CEO Alan Clarke

He is also keen to stress, despite the terrible recent publicity, that the UK red meat sector remains “one of the most regulated industries in the world”.  Scotland in particular, was a “pioneer of quality assurance over 30 years ago and is unique”, he adds. “From the birth of the animal to when it is processed, everything they do is quality assured.. We also have a partnership with Scottish SPCA, and believe there is no other country in the world where a national animal welfare charity and a national red meat organisation is partnered together.”

The likes of Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured also argue standards as a whole are high. The latter tells The Grocer that while “one case of poor farm animal welfare is one too many”, welfare concerns on its farms are “extremely rare”, with just 10 complaints on its approved farms out of 3,879 members – broadly the same percentage as in 2019 and 2018.

Just 19 certificates were suspended for breaches of the RSPCA’s standards and/or scheme requirements relating specifically to welfare, a spokeswoman says, with 13 certificates subsequently reinstated once the problems were fully resolved. Only three members were actually removed from the scheme, she adds.

This comes despite the challenges of the pandemic on farm assessments, with both RSPCA Assured and Red Tractor forced to temporarily switch to compulsory virtual assessments last spring, carried out via live streaming. However, RSPCA Assured says almost three-quarters of assessments carried out last year were in-person.

Red Tractor CEO Jim Moseley adds the “overwhelming majority” of its 50,000 farmer members adhere to standards “day in and day out”.

Broiler chickens

Campaigners claim the UK animal welfare system falls short of “what’s needed to ensure animals have lives worth living”

Too much trust

But campaigners disagree. Incidents like the one at P&G Sleigh raise serious questions over the effectiveness of the UK’s animal welfare framework, they say. Animal Equality’s executive director Abigail Penny believes “there’s far too much trust and self-regulation”.

Compassion in World Farming’s chief policy advisor Peter Stevenson says the UK has a deeply flawed system, that often falls “way short of what’s needed to ensure animals have lives worth living”.

“I get weary of government and industry attempting to deflect legitimate concerns by saying we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world. That’s a bit of a verbal slight of hand. Our standards fall a long way short of what’s needed,” he says.

Lindsay Duncan, World Animal Protection’s farming campaign manager, agrees. “In some cases we are ahead of many countries, but far behind others.”

The UK’s continued use of enriched cages in the egg sector is one example. The majority of retailers have pledged to ban their use by 2025, but no commitment has been made for eggs in manufacturing, and 42% of the UK’s hens are still kept in cages, says Stevenson.

And, though the use of sow stalls during pregnancy in the UK was banned in 1999, about 50% of UK sows are still placed in farrowing crates a few days before giving birth and remain there until the piglets are weaned at three to four weeks of age, they point out.

I get weary of government and industry attempting to deflect legitimate concerns by saying we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world

Compassion in World Farming chief policy advisor Peter Stevenson 

That practice “has been banned for years in Sweden, Switzerland and Norway, while Germany has made a move to ban by 2035”, Stevenson says. Plus, routine tail-docking, a practice banned some 25 years ago, remains commonplace in the pig sector, he claims.

“Our egg sector still kills millions of day-old male chicks every year and is making no move to change this,” and there are many more examples where the UK falls behind, such as the fact up to 20% of the dairy herd are zero grazed, he adds.

This would explain why the UK fares relatively poorly in a host of separate global animal welfare rankings. WAP’s Animal Protection Index of 50 countries gives the UK a ‘D’ (on a scale ranging from ‘A’ for the highest and ‘G’ for the lowest) for protecting farmed animals.

Meanwhile, our record on broiler-rearing has come under continuous criticism in recent years due to the UK’s comparative failure to engage with the Europe-wide Better Chicken Commitment – a set of six high-welfare housing and lifestyle measures, including a ban on fast-growing breeds, endorsed by leading animal welfare groups across Europe.

In its latest ‘State of the Chicken Industry’ report, published this month, campaign group The Humane League noted that just two major UK supermarkets – M&S and Waitrose – had signed up to the commitment, compared to all of France’s. And while foodservice, QSR, manufacturers and suppliers had made “big progress” on improving welfare practices, the Humane League report estimated just 5% of the chicken sold in UK retailers was compliant with the BCC.

The government’s action plan

Launched in May alongside legislation to recognise animals as sentient in law, Defra said its action plan for animal welfare would “reinforce [the UK’s] position as a global champion of animal rights”.

It includes a raft of measures to protect pets and wild animals, plus commitments to protect animals abroad, such as the prohibition of shark fin trade and a possible ban on the sale of foie gras.

Animal Equality PG Sleigh investigation1

Source: Animal Equality

The alleged abuse on a farm operated by P&G Sleigh was the latest in a series of welfare scandals in recent years

A live animal export ban for slaughter and fattening is also in the plan, with legislation for England and Wales introduced to parliament this month.

However, World Animal Protection’s Lindsay Duncan warns there remain “gaps” in the ban, with a separate set of legislation still due for Scotland and no restrictions on the transport of live animals within the UK.

Animals can still be transported within the UK, which does mean there is a potential loophole for animals to be exported via Northern Ireland 

Lindsey Duncan, UK campaigns manager, World Animal Protection

Meanwhile, Defra’s recent consultation into gene editing “also has the potential to lower the welfare of farmed animals further by speeding up the selective breeding process for performance traits rather than welfare”, she suggests.

The action plan also includes potential proposals for animal welfare labelling reform (see below), a new penalty notice regime for offences and longer maximum custodial sentences (extended from six months to five years) for the worst cruelty offences, to send “a clear message animal cruelty will not be tolerated”, Defra says.

Consumer concerns

In their defence, BRC director Andrew Opie insists retailers “know how important good animal welfare is to consumers”. He points out the mults are offering shoppers wide and affordable choices in this area.

But this particular approach, seen when Tesco launched its Room to Roam high-welfare range last spring and when Morrisons announced plans to launch a BCC-compliant range earlier this year (while refusing to sign the BCC), has frustrated campaigners for “misleading shoppers”.

Morrisons “boasted of its new ‘higher welfare range’, yet on closer inspection this may impact a mere 1% of the chickens in its supply chain”, says Animal Equality campaigns specialist Jenny Canham.

Retailers could show more leadership on the issue, adds Stevenson. “They could say they would not take milk from cows grazed indoors as one example,” he says. “We need a two-pronged approach from retailers and government.”

Retailers know how important good animal welfare is to consumers which is why they take their responsibilities to animal welfare very seriously and they ensure it is a key part of the production standards for all the meat they sell

BRC director Andrew Opie

Campaigners have given the government’s pledge to reform the UK’s animal welfare systems – laid out in May in its action plan – a cautious welcome.

Stevenson is particularly interested in the pledge to look at a government-backed animal welfare labelling scheme – a proposal mooted for a number of years via initiatives such as 2018’s Labelling Matters coalition, but one that has never got off the ground.

Defra intends to consult by the end of 2021 on “how consumer information could be presented and on a range of policy options including mandatory/voluntary labelling reforms”.

But unless it addresses the issue of lower quality imports – a point campaigners and the NFU very much agree on – the government’s plans will be little more than window dressing, he suggests. “If government is really serious about improving welfare, they have to require imports to meet our standards or at least equivalent standards.”

RSPCA CEO Chris Sherwood describes the action plan as “the most comprehensive and important legislative agenda for animal welfare that this country has seen for a generation”. But in the same week the UK agreed a contentious free-trade agreement with Australia, he echoes Stevenson’s concerns that hurried trade deals with countries that allow production methods banned in the UK could mean we “fall at the first hurdle”.

With a raft of trade deals set to be signed over the coming months, the UK’s global reputation as a leader on animal welfare is at a crossroads. What happens next will likely shape an entire generation of farming.

What kind of welfare labelling is available now?

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Retailer-led initiatives

After the successful launch of a similar scheme in Germany, Lidl became the first UK supermarket to carry method of production labelling on its fresh poultry products in 2019.

The new front-of-pack labelling system splits fresh chicken into five different categories: Indoor, British Indoor, British Indoor+ (where birds have additional enrichment), British Free Range and British Organic.

Lidl widened the scheme last year to include pork, turkey and eggs. The discounter says its labelling has “supported an increase in sales across these ranges”.



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Red Tractor Enhanced Welfare

Red Tractor launched its enhanced welfare label last year as part of an ongoing standards revamp, which followed a series of damaging media exposés on accredited farms in 2018.

The modular scheme is aimed initially at the poultry sector and includes enhanced welfare, organic and free-range labels – all of which meet the requirements of the Better Chicken Commitment. Red Tractor will also unveil a “new version” of its core standards in November, with a greater emphasis on linking welfare outcomes to standards.


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RSPCA Assured

Its 3,879 members receive annual checks by specially-trained assessors, employed by RSPCA Assured, and are also subject to spot checks by its farm livestock officers.

Despite Covid-19, 75% of inspections were in person in 2020.The original high-welfare labelling scheme, RSPCA Assured celebrated its 25th birthday in March.

RSPCA Assured recently introduced a new sanctions policy to further improve compliance and give members “clear guidance about the actions we won’t hesitate to take if we identify any issues”.



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A future, compulsory labelling scheme?

It’s not the first time concerns over welfare have sparked talk of a compulsory scheme. Several campaigns have previously called for clearer labelling to “create a level playing field for farmers”.

Defra says it will consult on how “labelling might promote high standards and high welfare” later this year.