Many of us are increasingly aware of the impact of our food choices, whether that be on the environment, our health or animal welfare. But to understand more about how our food has been produced can be challenging. Unless you buy local, traceability in the meat supply chain is largely lacking, leaving the origin and method of production shrouded in anonymity on the supermarket shelves, despite whatever clever marketing and packaging would sometimes have us believe.  

The recent UK government call for evidence on animal welfare in food labelling is therefore welcomed. This precedes a full consultation, likely to take place next year, and seeks to explore the need for better labelling of animal welfare standards and how such labelling could work. 

However, a key point raised in our submission to the call for evidence was that, while we welcomed more information about animal welfare being conveyed to the consumer, we also felt that this issue should not be treated in isolation.  

A holistic labelling system 

Any resulting label that is limited to just animal welfare misses the opportunity to convey a whole-system perspective on sustainability to the consumer, which is vital in enabling informed purchasing decisions and harnessing consumer power. As members of CLEAR – the campaign for method of production labelling – we want to see the creation of an integrated label that covers all the environmental and welfare impacts of production and is based on data acquired transparently and fairly across the sector. However, integrated should not mean diluted– we would wish to see each category or indicator being displayed distinctly within one holistic label.  

Currently, there are a high number of different schemes and standards, as well as labels and terminology used to describe food. Because these are not based on a common framework or defined vocabulary asking all farmers to collect and monitor a single set of data, there can be a ‘pick and mix’ of different indicators presented to consumers, and existing schemes tend to use a variety of different data collection methods and accountability systems. This results in confusing and inconsistent information being relayed to the consumer and increases data duplication for farmers who have to gather information and report separately for each scheme or label.  

Labels are only as good as the data behind them. In order to be effective, reform of labelling must be carried out in parallel with the reform of data collection. If the Government were to adopt a common framework for measuring on-farm sustainability (which would include animal welfare) across the board, it would become much easier to provide consumers with transparent and accurate information. We, therefore, propose an annual sustainability assessment be carried out on each farm. This assessment would gather all the data necessary to comply with all certification and government audits and would therefore harmonise these systems of measurement and reduce the number of different audits a farm must carry out. In doing this annually, it means that welfare standards are regularly checked and reviewed.  

A Global Farm Metric 

The Global Farm Metric could form the framework for such an assessment. Animal Husbandry is one of 11 categories of the Global Farm Metric (the others are: Human, Social, Biodiversity, Plant and Crop Health, Nutrient Management, Energy and Resource Use, Air and Climate, Water, Soil and Productivity). On Animal Husbandry specifically, we measure: 

  • Management system: this reflects livestock housing, feeding and inspection practices, and includes indoor stocking density, animal handling facilities, staff’s ability to inspect for illness, general state of housing and bedding for livestock and sanitary status of the farm. 
  • Health and welfare: an indication of the health, welfare and resilience of the animals on the farm. It is dependent on a structured and documented approach to vaccination, antibiotic treatment, internal parasite/deworming, external parasite treatment, and consideration of disease prevention in breeding/stock selection and culling strategy. It includes presence/incidences of lameness, hair/fleece problems, mastitis and feed related disorders. 
  • Feed and input efficiency: indicating the feed type and source of the feed for animals on-farm, as well as the efficiency of protein conversion. It also includes feeding strategy, which indicates space for animals to eat at once, access to feed by time windows or at will of animals, feeding according to physiological needs, water availability and positioning to avoid contamination. 
  • Mortality rates on farm and longevity of breeding animals; 
  • Stress of animals at milking; 
  • Animal performance at abattoir inspection; 
  • Vet and medical expenditure. 

Clarity on imports 

Given that 45% of food in the UK comes from overseas, it is important that a harmonised framework for data and labelling should not be limited to UK-produced foods but should include imported foods as well. It should not be possible for food produced to a welfare standard below the UK’s baseline to be sold into the UK market. This undercuts our producers and dilutes our values, offshoring damage and increasing demand for food produced to poor standards elsewhere. Any food sold in the UK should therefore meet our baseline standards. 

A robust labelling system and international framework for data collection would allow greater transparency across international supply chains. Assessing all businesses, whether UK or abroad, against the same criteria would create a level playing field. In the long-term, we therefore wish to see a framework such as the Global Farm Metric adopted globally and used as the basis for international trade of sustainable food products. 

Supporting industry   

If a mandatory sustainability assessment or labelling scheme were introduced, it is imperative that farmers are supported in carrying out this assessment and that the scheme or label is designed to support farmers in improving their standards, rather than being a tick box exercise that does not help farmers to improve. Farmers shouldconsequently, play a leading role in the development of a workable labelling and data collection system. 

A data driven system that works through the length of the supply chain will also benefit catering, procurement and sourcing, providing access to full information about a product no matter where you are in the supply chain. This means that the sustainability and welfare credentials of food served in restaurants and schools should also be transparent for those seeking this information.  

As we transition to a new system for farm payments and we urgently try to address environmental and human health crises, now more than ever we need accurate and honest labelling that supports and empowers citizens to make good food choices. Looking ahead to 2022, this important opportunity to adopt a world-leading system for measuring and communicating food sustainability through labelling is one we must all grasp and co-create.