Farm assurance schemes
Farm assurance schemes
Can you 'Trust the Tractor' or any other so-called assurance schemes?
I won’t bore you with the intricacies of setting up covert investigations – it can take months – but in the last few weeks things have come together and we have been inside several production sheds. Officially they’re called farms but that’s only the start of a very bad joke.
But first, what protection – what laws – can the nearly one billion animals slaughtered every year in Britain rely on? Well, there aren’t any laws! The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issues ‘advice and guidance’ to livestock farmers and that’s it. Theoretically, in extreme cases, Defra could prosecute under cruelty to animal laws but I can’t find a single case in which they’ve done so. If they have then it’s very well hidden in the Whitehall archives.
Slaughterhouses are a closed shop and a request to film inside one will be about as successful as asking for a knighthood and eternal life. The Government’s own advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, has even been refused entry. When cruelty is exposed in slaughterhouses it is invariably poo pooed with the claim that vets are present and it couldn’t possibly happen in front of them. Some slaughterhouses don’t have resident vets and even in those that do, the vet is required to inspect the slaughter process only once a day, he’s much more interested in dead flesh and possible disease. There is the added complication of repeated claims that vets and Meat Hygiene Inspectors are frequently threatened by knife-wielding slaughtermen if they dare to interrupt the production line of death with concerns over welfare – and therefore threaten their bonuses.
Again, I may be a bit thick but I can’t find a single case where employers (Food Standards Agency [FSA] and Defra) have prosecuted slaughterhouses for cruelty. I can hear the official response tinkling in my ears: ‘Just shows what incredibly high welfare standards we have.’ On the other hand, it could show that you simply don’t give a s—t!
In the recent past, friends of ours have filmed acute suffering in slaughterhouses, including the stubbing out of cigarettes on the snouts and faces of pigs. The footage was handed to the responsible body, the FSA, who passed it on to Defra, who refused to prosecute. The reason is straight out of Alice in Wonderland – permission from the slaughterhouse had not been sought before installing the hidden cameras! ‘Excuse me, sir, may I come into your house and film while you terrify your little boy and beat him unconscious with that stick you’re carrying?’ Of course, hidden CCTV footage is successfully used in court cases as was secret BBC footage of people with learning disabilities being abused in a residential home.
The FSA also popped up out of nowhere the year before (2000), following several scandals involving deadly food-borne diseases emanating from British farms. It would protect the public and champion its interests, we were told. There was just one teeny, weeny little flaw in its remit – it would not be allowed to look at anything that actually took place on farms.
And so, mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease and antibiotic resistance, all of which revealed themselves on UK farms, were free from investigation by this almost toothless creation. People who were frantic with worry about the safety of their food waited for the FSA to reassure them with its first report. Know what it was? A claim that organic food was no better for you than conventional food!
It was a busy couple of years back then as also in 2000, the Red Tractor food assurance scheme was launched, bringing together a range of smaller schemes. The rationale was much the same as that of the FSA – to keep food sales (particularly animal products) bouyant. If the FSA had severe faults, the Red Tractor scheme was the equivalent to the tart’s fur coat – to hide what little there was beneath.
Suddenly, tens of thousands of livestock farmers became members, without having to do anything of substance, and could boast that their animals were ‘assured’. If their standards slipped there would be no warning letters, no prosecutions and no fines – just a few words. This really is ‘bottom rung’ stuff, little more than meeting Defra’s very basic ‘advice and guidance’.
Hens can still be kept in cages, sows can still be kept in farrowing crates and dairy cows can be kept in stalls for their entire lives in ‘zero grazing’ units.
The RSPCA was way ahead of all these little marketing schemes when in 1994 it launched its Freedom Food brand – a welfare scheme with five famous freedoms at its heart. Freedom from: hunger and thirst, discomfort; pain, injury or disease; to express normal behaviour; fear and distress. If I was a meat eater, I’d buy into that. Wouldn’t I? Perhaps, not if I knew (but was never told in their advertising) that they weren’t just talking about free range animals but factory farming, also. I’ll let you be the judge. Dry pellets every day and no rooting, young taken away before they’re weaned, filthy indoor sheds and little space, farrowing crates, mutilations, almost constant medication to control killer diseases such as TB…?
Having exposed some pretty grim Freedom Food farms, we complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that the five freedoms were bogus. Our complaint was rejected because the ASA claimed that these much publicised freedoms were an ‘aspiration’ and not a claim that they actually existed. Was the word ‘aspirational’ used alongside the five claimed freedoms on any advertising material? Of course not! I think I might launch a sure-fire, five-star cure for cancer and when I’m hauled over the coals I’ll say ‘It’s alright, it’s aspirational’.
Rescue some battery hens, as we have done, and watch their transformation. Flacid, pale pink combes stand erect and turn blood red; anaemic, almost white legs become sturdy and brown and the long nails become short from scratching. Feathers grow back and shimmer and shine beautifully and within days of rescue these intelligent creatures are dust bathing, hunting bugs and forming self-selecting colonies. They thrust the soil aside with powerful strokes of their legs and they cluck appreciatively from the privacy and straw comfort of a nesting box.
We have also been onto several pig farms recently and witnessed piglets crammed together in the equivalent of battery cages, three tiers deep. Some dead piglets lay on the floor beneath who had presumably struggled free and fallen only to die from injury, hunger and thirst. But the cages did have some ‘environmental enrichment’ which is advised (although not required) – a chain dangling from the wire mesh above with which to play! Environmental enrichment, stated without a trace of embarrassment! It’s straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.
Elsewhere we saw the usual farrowing crates, rotting piglets, the rape stalls, a pile of flesh in one corner crawling with flies and maggots. And meat from this little beauty sports the Red Tractor assurance label.
The farm’s response to our exposé? We had set it all up, placed the dead piglets and utterly misrepresented the real conditions.
On a different farm, the conditions were even worse, with active cannibalism going on in front of the camera. I won’t describe any more but our director, Juliet Gellatley, was one of the undercover team and I urge you to check out her passionate and tearful piece to camera directly from the farm on www.viva.org.uk/pigs.
In her transparent revulsion and emotion I think she is speaking for most people in Britain. She is not, however, speaking for the architects and cynical users of assurance schemes or any of the others who perpetuate animal cruelty on an industrial scale.
Well, the Viva! boil on their bottom started as a blemish, it turned into a spot and has now become very painful – and we haven’t finished yet by a long way.