28 October, 2013Issue 23.2

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Food Glorious Food

Ellen Coombs


More than ever, we are concerned about our food: where it comes from, how it is raised and, following the recent horse meat scandal in the UK, what it actually contains. It seems that every other day a new food fad, pop-up whole food shop or farmers market is shoved under our noses, tantalising our taste buds with free-range, organic and fair trade goodies… and we love it. According to the Soil Association’s 2013 Organic report, the global organic market has grown by 25% in the last three years alone. Fresh produce and box home delivery services offering locally sourced and fresh ingredients are now worth ¬£174.3 million in the UK, and this is rising. Consumers want to know more about where their food comes from and how it was grown or raised. We’re not only hungry for fresh and wholesome produce; we’re also hungry for information.

So how much information is too much? Should the pesticides used to grow our bananas be added to an ingredients list? How about the method in which your steak was slaughtered? This increased food consciousness could be a great sign of things to come, especially for those of us who search the shelves for ethically produced food. We are bombarded by lots of different logos and colour codes, and some labels can be misleading—‘barn reared’, ‘outdoor bred’, ‘farm fresh’ or ‘outdoor reared’—it’s not surprising that it can be difficult for consumers to make sense of them.

One commonly used logo is the Red Tractor logo; it is visible on hundreds of supermarket products including meat, poultry, fruit, vegetables and even beer. The Red Tractor is a food assurance scheme which ensures certain standards of production right across the food chain. A red tractor placed over a Union Flag guarantees that products have been farmed, processed, and packed in the UK, and therefore boasts traceability of the product right back to individual farms. This could perhaps help ease the minds of consumers, especially in the wake of the recent horse meat scandal, but does the British stamp ensure that the animals we are eating have had a good quality of life? Described as having ‘good’ animal welfare standards, the Red Tractor guidelines are actually disappointingly below the standards of Soil Association and RSPCA Freedom Food schemes. In fact the Red Tractor scheme only ensures compliance with minimum legislative requirements for animal welfare and was ranked lowest for animal welfare in a 2012 study by Compassion in World Farming and OneKind.

While the humble Union Flag promotes images of farm animals frolicking in our green and pleasant land, the scheme allows tethering and year-round housing in zero-grazing systems, weaning of calves from as young as five weeks, long journeys to slaughter and the export of live calves to the continent. High yielding dairy cows would naturally live for up to twenty years but are usually slaughtered at only a quarter of their life expectancy as they are chronically lame after a life on concrete and metal grates. Cattle housed in these conditions often suffer from mastitis, a painful udder infection caused by being forced to carry several extra kilos of milk in their udders.

Under the scheme piglets can have their teeth clipped and tails painfully docked with no anaesthetic. What’s more, Red Tractor farms can (legally) cram 38 kg of chickens into a square metre—equivalent to an A4 piece of paper for each chicken. The Red Tractor scheme also allows the use of fast-growing chickens, which grow so unnaturally quick that their legs cannot support their over-developed bodies, causing lameness (shockingly, some chickens cannot even stand up), heart disease and heat-stroke. Crowding chickens also leads to large volumes of droppings, the ammonia from which causes burns on the chickens’ hocks–something which you’re likely to see in a packaged chicken on the supermarket shelves.

rspcaHowever, if you do want to have your steak and eat it (in a welfare friendly manner), then luckily there is light (and choice) at the end of the tunnel. You may well be familiar with the RSPCA’s Freedom Food logo already. It appears on meat, eggs and a variety of other products. The name itself, ‘Freedom Food’, conjures images of plump lambs springing on lush pastures. So, what life-quality do animals raised under RSCPA Freedom Food standards actually have?

Animals produced under this standard are promised a stimulating environment and plenty of room to move around. They are also promised these conditions for the whole of their lives. However, before we continue, let’s not get carried away by a title promising ‘Freedom’. This doesn’t necessarily mean that animals are free to move around and express normal behaviour; it means that precautions are taken to ensure that animals have freedom from discomfort, pain or the lack of food or water. One might think that these are the minimal requirements that any animal on this planet unfortunate enough to be raised in intensive farming systems rightly deserve, and that freedom from pain and suffering shouldn’t demark high standards. Does it seem too radical then, to suggest that promises such as ‘Restrictions on the use of many common mutilations,’ and ‘the restriction of transport duration to eight hours for most species,’ just aren’t good enough in a country that is so in love with animals and so in love with food? Even with this in mind, food raised under the RSPCA’s Freedom Food offers a range of great promises and improvements that are sadly lacking in other parts of the world.

soilIf buying high welfare food is something that interests you, then you may like to look out for the Soil Association’s logo. Meat stamped with this label has been raised under some of the UK’s highest welfare standards. Broiler chickens on Soil Association farms must be housed with room for a maximum of 10 birds per square metre. For organic birds this enables room for grazing, pecking, scratching, stretching their wings and dust-bathing. The standard also calls for free-range access, the prohibition of confinement systems and the provision of an adequate diet. The standard could be strengthened, but if you’re looking for an ethically guilt-free burger, then the Soil Association’s Organic Standard stamp is a solid step in the right direction.

When it comes to choosing ethical foods, awareness is the key. Consumers want to be informed; we’ve shown that as a nation of foodies, we want to know more and more about where our food comes from. However, something may still pummel at the conscience as we shovel down our free range, organic, “happy” burger. After a reasonably long (16 month) life of comfort, we may want to consider just how the animal on our plates had his or her life ended. No matter how food animals are raised in the UK, from the most intensive systems of zero daylight to the fairly natural pasture systems, they all meet the same end. Many of our animals are crated up and put on ferries to suffer needlessly long journeys to the continent (for up to 8 hours without water or space to lie down) while we import live cargo in the opposite direction. Why not slaughter in the country of origin and freeze carcasses for transport? Understandably people want fresh meat, but live transport to the country of consumption is an unnecessary and cruel method of obtaining this.

Today, we as consumers are far removed from the long chain of food production. On a recent radio programme, we heard a child being asked where milk comes from only to be answered with the worrying reply, ‘Tesco’.

So how much do we know about slaughter? Granted, this is a rather grizzly subject. Recent footage of secret filming in UK abattoirs has shown that in many cases, “humane slaughter” is a sham, often inflicting grievous suffering and breaching animal welfare law on endless counts. Slaughter methods can range from conventional bolt gun stunning where larger animals (like pigs and cattle) are stunned by the passing of a bolt through the brain, before being shackled by a hind leg, raised above the ground and bled to death by a slit to the throat. It is believed that stunning the animal first renders them unconscious (although an estimated 1.6 million pigs a year are either incorrectly stunned or not stunned at all). Halal and Kosher methods of slaughter do not stun animals before bleeding them, while other methods in the UK include rendering animals unconscious via exposure to high CO2 concentrations. Recent findings debate how painful the flooding of the cells by CO2 actually is and, what’s more, stunning animals with gas does not result in immediate loss of consciousness–turkeys are seen to shake their heads and gasp for air and pigs show clear signs of distress during gassing, trying to escape.

Electrocution is a popular method for slaughtering our poultry. After a journey crammed in crates (exposed to the only fresh air they have encountered in their lives) they are shackled upside down, live, before having their heads dunked in to electrified water baths. After this stunning (in fact, many chickens raise their heads above the water and are not electrocuted properly), the animals then have their throats cut.

In the UK we slaughter 30 million cattle, calves, sheep and pigs and around 90 million poultry every year. Slaughter is, of course, not a pretty affair. Indeed there is no ‘nice’ way to end something’s life. We can, however, improve our methods by making the process as quick and humane as possible and by keeping stress to a minimum. How about educating those on the front line, the slaughter men and women who stun these animals? Give them extra support and training. Reports documenting the desensitisation to slaughter of some slaughter men and women (Shepherd, 2013) are perhaps not surprising. However, if you are desensitised to the act of ending an animal’s life, how much do you care about doing it properly? How much does it become mundane routine? Without meaning to generalise, there is horrendous footage (see the Animal Aid website for footage ‘The Humane Slaughter Myth’) of some people having become overly desensitised to the job in hand. This includes incorrectly grasping animals with electrified tongs, not shackling animals correctly so they fall from a great height, and even acts of torture: pigs burnt with cigarettes and others kicked purely for entertainment. Often, this treatment and rough handling of livestock is caused by workers who are paid on commission, ‘per animal’, which makes for rushed jobs and horrific suffering.

Some action has been taken. Recent CCTV (see World Horse Welfare’s footage of handling of horses in a UK abattoir) and reports has shown that behaviour in some abattoirs is simply unacceptable, and many of the slaughterhouses that have been found to not follow regulations through secret filming have been prosecuted. It is now being proposed that all UK abattoirs are wired up with CCTV, but why not go one step further and also provide assessed training and ongoing support for our slaughter people, who have one of the most important jobs in the whole meat production system? Ending the life of anything is a big deal and should be talked about and improved. While our food labels help us to identify the manner in which livestock have been raised, further assurances that our meal’s life was ended humanely are surely needed. As Gandhi famously said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged on the way in which its animals are treated.”

Ellen Coombs read for an MSc in Biology at Linacre College, Oxford.