Monday, 15 January 2018

Method of slaughter labels will help drive improvements in farm animal welfare

Farmwel's proposal for method of slaughter labelling has been welcomed by the UK Government. As The Telegraph recently reported, 'George Eustice, the farming minister, has now given a clear indication that the Government will consider introducing labelling after the UK leaves the European Union.'

Over the last decade there have been various attempts to introduce slaughter labelling both in the United Kingdom and at European level. These attempts have been unsuccessful, partly because they have focussed on the issue of pre-slaughter stunning.

Ongoing debate between critical stakeholders on the science of stunning, and the reasonable fear that a ‘stunned’/‘unstunned’ label may lead to the victimisation of people who support religious slaughter, has led to deadlock. There is also a danger that this form of labelling would create the inaccurate impression that slaughter with pre-stunning is always quick, clean, and humane.

Since 2016, Farmwel and FAI Farms have worked to change the conversation and focus the debate on consumer transparency. Over the last two years we’ve consulted a diverse range of stakeholders, including MPs, members of the House of Lords, senior representatives of the British Veterinary Association and Shechita UK, as well as food and farm animal welfare campaigners.

Following this consultation we have proposed a unique numbered system, which should be used to identify the method of slaughter for all meat products sold in the UK. Numbers would relate to one of the Defra approved methods of slaughter.

Critically, we believe that a method of slaughter label for all meat products will help drive improvements in welfare for all farm animals at the end of their lives – and importantly, we believe it will be possible to deliver a consensus around this solution.

A method of slaughter label will:
Improve public information, enabling citizens to drive standards
Improve the capacity for retailers and restaurants to respond to consumer preferences
Improve supply and demand relationships between wholesalers and abattoirs

Why is a label necessary?
Public concern about slaughter has increased, but much debate and media coverage has centred on the issue of pre-stunning and has not always been well informed. Method of slaughter labelling would improve consumer choice and help to ensure that retailers and restaurants are better able to respond to consumer preferences.

A simple number system identifying all approved slaughter methods would be objective and helpful in driving welfare outcomes for all farm animals. In our view, labelling should also be underpinned by robust welfare outcome measures focussed on handling, lairage, stunning, and slaughter to help improve and maintain standards. The combination of public information, science, and formalised assurance could improve the end of life outcomes for millions of UK farm animals each week.

Changes to UK labelling laws would have a global impact due to the long supply chains managed by UK retailers and restaurants. We also hope that improvements in UK law would later be replicated overseas.

Halal and Kosher
It’s important that Halal and Kosher customers can accurately identify meat products slaughtered to the appropriate religious standard. Equally it’s important for other citizens to be able to identify meat products which meet their own ethical preferences.

By labelling all meat products by method of slaughter, we will be able to ensure closer correspondence with consumer preferences.

Innovation and pre-slaughter stunning 
Methods of pre-slaughter stunning vary considerably between and within species. There is also a wide variance in each system’s inherent ability to deliver good welfare outcomes at slaughter. For example, if administered correctly the use of a captive bolt for cattle renders an effective stun and immediate loss of consciousness, prior to neck or throat cut. By comparison, the head stunning electric water bath system for poultry requires inversion and live shackling of birds, which they find stressful.  As a result of size variability some birds pass through the system un-stunned prior to the neck cut.

CO2 gas stunning of poultry can create visible aversion for several minutes and therefore has lower welfare outcomes than using inert gas stunning. However, CO2 is cheaper and easier for slaughterhouse operatives to identify and so remains the preferred gas stunning method.

Around 20m birds are killed each week in Great Britain, and according to figures from the FSA’s 2013 survey of UK slaughterhouses, around a quarter of birds were electrically stunned, and well over a half were gassed. We believe that most of these birds would have been gassed using CO2 or a high CO2 mix.

Greater transparency would lead to increased innovation to improve slaughter methods and could help create a market for the most humane slaughter systems.

Underpinned by welfare outcome measures
Farmwel believes that method of slaughter labelling should be underpinned by the use of robust outcome measures (OMs), which can be used to assess and improve welfare. Slaughter OMs should cover lairage, handling, and slaughter.

Currently UK slaughter standards are the responsibility of the operator, although the FSA requires the presence of an Official Vet (OV) to check the slaughter line. Monitoring the point of killing is just one of the OV’s many quality assurance duties, and there is no formal or standardised system for reporting outcomes.

We believe that OMs should be agreed nationally to help index slaughterhouses and compare standards. OVs should spend a fixed proportion of their time at the slaughter line. The informal ‘daybook’ system should be replaced, and an iPad or equivalent device should be used to record and manage information locally and to feed directly into a national data set for analysis and farmer feedback.

Welfare outcome measures will:
Provide the opportunity for consistent national monitoring by the FSA
Help ensure continuous maintenance and improvement of standards
Report consistent kill data back to farmers, informing production practices to reduce losses due to carcass condemnations
Help identify training needs and improve efficiency
Mean that the UK is able to compare itself at a global level
Allow the FSA to index slaughterhouses – providing greater choice for farmers, retailers, religious consumers, and restaurants concerned about welfare at slaughter.

Retailers and restaurants
Slaughter labelling will empower consumers to drive slaughter standards from the market place. It will also mean that retailers and restaurants are better equipped to respond to consumer preferences, which may vary around the UK.

This increased scrutiny will help to ensure that slaughterhouses adopt best practice and focus on good outcomes. Labelling will also mean that sustainability organisations are able to work with retailers and restaurants to overcome supply chain challenges.

In November 2017, Farmwel and FAI made a proposal to Defra that will deliver substantial farm animal welfare improvements, and importantly, will be broadly acceptable to stakeholders.

Part one: A unique numbered system should be used to identify the method of slaughter for all meat products sold in the UK.  Numbers would relate to one of the Defra approved methods of slaughter.

Numbered alphabetically:
1. Electrical – head only
2. Electrical – head to body
3. Electrical – water bath
4. Gas - CO2
5. Gas - CO2 and inert
6. Gas – Inert
7. Halal
8. Halal – pre-stunned
9. Jewish Shechita
10. Non-penetrative captive bolt
11. Penetrative captive bolt
12. Shot

Part two: Labels should be underpinned by robust welfare outcome-based assessments (metrics).

Method of production labelling
Farmwel believes that mandatory method of slaughter and method of production labels should be introduced together. This would achieve a high level of consumer transparency, providing the chance for consumers to actively support government ambitions for gold standard farm animal welfare.

Mandatory method of production labelling provides a straight-forward opportunity to deliver growth in all higher welfare meat and dairy sectors. By providing consumer choice the market will be able to influence and reward improvements in farm animal welfare. EU method of production labelling of shell eggs has led to more than 50% of UK eggs being produced by cage-free hens. UK method of production labelling of pork has led to nearly half of pigs living in higher welfare systems, with more than a third being assured by RSPCA Freedom Food.


* Farmwel advocates policies to enable a transition to sustainable and accountable mainstream agriculture and aquaculture.  Our goals for secure and sustainable food are supported by other important groups such as the Food Ethics Council.  Our expertise is underpinned by FAI Farms, a globally respected farm consultancy, which helps the food-sector overcome key challenges and implement better farming practices on land and at sea.  FAI works with major retailers (such as M&S) and restaurants (such as McDonalds) to analyse and improve the farm animal welfare and environmental impacts of their supply chains.  

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