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Finding the right label

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HE may have been playing to the gallery, but remarks by Hilary Benn about food labelling at the Oxford Farming Conference should certainly have gone down well with farmers (see p 69 of this issue). Whether the Secretary of State's call for foods to be labelled to indicate the country of origin will go down equally well with the European Commission remains to be seen, as his comments were not altogether in tune with the principles of the single market, although in truth there would seem to be little harm in consumers knowing where the food they are eating is coming from. If the legislators in Brusselswill not help here, then Mr Benn will have to see what can be achieved by voluntary means. In the meantime, there is another approach to food labelling which might be more acceptable to the European Commission and could bring benefits in terms of animal welfare. Giving consumers more information about the welfare provenance of food rather than just the country of origin could benefit those producing food to higher standards and help raise animal welfare standards generally.

The benefits of animal welfare labelling were discussed in a report from the UK's Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in 2006 (VR, June 24, 2006, vol 158, pp 842-843), and more recently at the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation's (AWF's) annual discussion forum last May (VR, May 31, 2008, vol 162, p 703). Meanwhile, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe is developing a position statement on the issue which could form a useful basis for progress at European level.

The report from the FAWC argued that better labelling of food, backed by appropriate farm assurance schemes, had considerable potential for raising animal welfare standards and could benefit both animals and consumers. However, it pointed out that information for consumers about the welfare provenance of food is scarce, making it difficult for them to satisfy the preferences often expressed in surveys and choose products that contribute to better animal welfare. To make that choice, consumers need better information about the welfare provenance of products in a form that is easily identified, readily understood and stands up to scrutiny, and the FAWC called on retailers, caterers and other suppliers to make such information available.

The FAWC rightly pointed out that there is a strong case to be made for a form of labelling that conveys an effective message about welfare standards from birth to slaughter, and not just at farm level. It also argued that the same or equivalent welfare standards should apply not just to farm animals reared in Britain, but to animals reared in other countries that are then used as food or as a source of ingredients in Britain. As things stand, World Trade Organization rules do not explicitly recognise animal welfare as a legitimate reason for restricting trade, which means that attempts to distinguish between products on animal welfare grounds could be subject to challenge. However, as the FAWC pointed out, inadequate provision of information itself distorts trade.

In principle, the FAWC was in favour of a mandatory system of welfare labelling, arguing that this was desirable both on moral grounds and because ‘If retailers were required to label clearly the welfare status of all livestock products, including those imported products that do not meet UK welfare legislation, it is possible that a significant switch by consumers to products produced to higher animal welfare standards would result.’ It recognised, however, that there were significant issues to be resolved, and recommended that in the short term a voluntary system should be adopted, with the major retailers playing an important role in taking animal welfare labelling forward. The FAWC used the term ‘labelling’ in its widest sense, referring not just to labels on packets, where space might be limited, but also to other information available at the point of sale, as well as through other sources such as in-house magazines and websites.

Producing food to higher animal welfare standards often costs more, although the point was made during the BVA AWF's discussion forum that this need not always be the case, as better husbandry can bring production gains. Foods produced to higher standards can also be sold at a higher price but, crucially, this depends on consumers being able to identify such products easily and being fully aware of what they are paying for. The problems facing the English pig industry, as highlighted by a report from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this week (see pp 68-69 of this issue), provide a clear example of how efforts to improve animal welfare can be undermined in a distorted market. The answer, however, must not be to lower standards, but to find a level playing field and ensure that consumers have the information they need to make appropriate choices.

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