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Animal Husbandry (Welfare Standards)

2.30 pm

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): I should point out that, notwithstanding what is on the Order Paper, the full title of the debate is “Animal Husbandry (Welfare Standards)”.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you for that clarification, Mr. Weir.

A high priority for me throughout my political life has been campaigning for higher standards in animal welfare—recently, as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and before that through many ways in the community. I am therefore grateful to have secured this debate and delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), is to respond. He has a truly superb track record on animal welfare matters, so it is good that he is here.

How we treat animals, how they are viewed by society, what legislation exists to protect them and how it is enforced must all underpin any claims we might have to being a civilised, compassionate and caring nation. The Government have a good track record, with such legislation as the Hunting Act 2004 and the groundbreaking Animal Welfare Bill, which is teetering on the brink of the statute book. I am also pleased that we have a wide range of powerful and persuasive animal welfare organisations in the United Kingdom, including Compassion in World Farming and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I pay tribute to both for their continuing work.

The RSPCA recently launched a new initiative—a gauge to track what is happening with animal welfare, which is not only crucial from the perspective of animal protection, but essential as regards feeding into Government policy and better informing decision makers and stakeholders. The gauge will point up where policy, industry practices, education and social attitudes need attention and reform. It is a new and potentially valuable concept that I welcome.

I referred to the Hunting Act, which devoured an enormous amount of time in this place. The use of animals in laboratory research understandably generates a good deal of attention, and not a little legislation. By comparison with those two issues, animal husbandry is less debated, and I regret that. For every fox that was killed by the hunters in red coats, at least 200 animals are killed by experimenters in white coats. For every rodent killed in a laboratory in the interests of our health, 200 hens are killed, often in inhumane conditions in broiler units, in the interests of our nutrition. We must get our priorities right, and I contend that we need to focus more on animal husbandry.

The large numbers of livestock bred annually in our land generate a great variety of welfare issues, which are linked to the rearing, handling, transporting and slaughtering of various species. It is indeed a challenge to ensure an acceptable quality of life for all farm animals, in which their physical and behavioural requirements are recognised by an appropriate environment, suitable management and proper health care. However, it is a challenge that we must take up. I will deal with my
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concerns in two prime areas—later in animal transportation, but first in the poultry industry.

It is encouraging that more than one third of hens in the UK are now kept in barn or free range systems: 31 per cent. of hens are kept free range, with 5.5 per cent. in barn systems. The majority of hens, however, continue to be kept in battery cages. Around 18 million hens are kept in battery cages in the UK, which amounts to about 63 per cent. of the UK’s flock of 30 million.

The battery cage system is inhumane. Hens are crammed into cages so tiny that they cannot even stretch their wings. Scientific research has established that hens have strong instincts to lay their eggs in a nest, peck and scratch in the ground, dust bathe and perch. None of those behaviours are possible in the battery cage. Moreover, the severe restriction of movement in the cage leads to high levels of osteoporosis and so to many battery hens suffering from broken bones.

The 1999 EU laying hens directive bans conventional battery cages for egg-laying hens from 2012, but that ban is now under threat, because the directive requires the cage ban to be reviewed before it comes into force. That review is currently taking place, and many EU egg producers want the ban to be dropped or, like our own British Egg Industry Council, postponed for many years. I urge the Minister to take the lead at the EU Agriculture Council in opposing any postponement of the ban. The ban on battery cages must come into force in 2012, no later.

Many farmers plan to switch to so-called enriched cages, as the ban on battery cages approaches and as the laying hens directive permits. Under the directive, hens kept in enriched cages are given just 50 sq cm more useable floor space than those kept in battery cages. Such cages provide perches, a nest box and a littered area, which are largely inadequate to meet hens’ behavioural needs. Enriched cages do not in any sense overcome the welfare problems inherent in the battery cage system. As animal welfare campaigners, we must urge consumers not to buy battery or enriched-cage eggs, but instead to buy barn or free-range eggs.

The supermarkets, food manufacturers and food service operators have their role to play too. It is important that the ban on battery cages is supported both by individual consumers and by those groups, to ensure that UK egg producers are not undermined by the import of battery eggs from outside the EU when the prohibition on battery cages comes into force in 2012.

It is well recorded that many UK consumers are willing to pay extra to buy non-cage eggs. Several major supermarkets report that a majority of their shell egg sales are barn or free-range eggs. Those supermarkets include Tesco, the Co-op, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. All supermarkets should adopt a policy of selling only non-cage shell eggs. Once that is in place, they should introduce a policy of using only non-cage eggs in their processed foods. Food manufacturers and food service operators should support the cage ban by committing themselves to not importing battery eggs or battery egg products from outside the EU once the ban comes into force.

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The public sector has a big part to play, providing meals and food in hospitals, schools, prisons and staff canteens, and to the armed forces. It should be encouraged to source and provide only eggs and egg products that have been produced to EU welfare standards. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will promote a policy within government and other public bodies of supporting the ban on battery cages by committing themselves to not sourcing battery eggs and products from outside the EU, once the EU cage ban comes into force.

More than 800 million broiler chickens—chickens for meat—are reared each year in the UK. Nearly all are farmed industrially. They are kept in huge windowless sheds that are so overcrowded that as the birds grow bigger one can barely see the floor, so thickly is it carpeted with chickens. Up to 50,000 chickens may be crammed into one shed. The main welfare problems faced by today’s broilers stem from the fact that they have been pushed, mainly through selective breeding, to reach their slaughter weight in about 41 days, which is around twice as fast as 35 years ago. The legs fail to keep pace with the rapidly growing body and often buckle under the strain of supporting it. As a result, millions of broilers each year suffer from painful, sometimes crippling leg disorders. Some of the chickens have difficulty reaching the food and water points in the broiler sheds, and in the worst cases they can barely move at all. The heart and lungs, too, often cannot keep pace with the rapidly growing body, and millions of broilers succumb to heart failure each year.

Again, I urge the Minister to ensure that his Department addresses those problems by working with the breeding companies to encourage them to give a higher priority to leg health and strength in their selection programmes, and to stop selecting for even faster growth rates; to encourage broiler farmers to reduce growth rates and/or to change to slower-growing breeds; and finally, to adopt the target of emulating France, where one in six broilers are slow-growing breeds that do not reach slaughter weight until about 86 days of age, as opposed to the industry norm in this country of about 41 days. At present, very few UK broilers are slow-growing breeds.

I welcome the proposed, first ever EU directive on broiler welfare. It is currently being negotiated; perhaps the Minister is involved in that. At present, there is no species-specific EU legislation to protect broilers on farms, although they are covered by the directives on transport and slaughter. The broiler welfare directive could be settled next month, so it would be helpful if this debate sent a clear message to the Government about what campaigners and MPs, here and elsewhere, hope will be included in it.

I have one or two suggestions. Most broilers are kept in extremely overcrowded conditions, and scientific research shows that stocking density is an important factor in determining broiler welfare. Scientific papers show that higher stocking densities lead to poor litter quality, and so to an increasing incidence of foot pad dermatitis and deep dermatitis.

Owing to the reduction in activity, there is a greater incidence of leg disorders at higher stocking densities. In overcrowded conditions, chickens find it difficult to move around and they get less exercise, which means
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that they have less opportunity to develop leg strength. That is one of the factors that leads to the high level of leg problems among broilers. Another issue is poor air quality. Higher stocking density leads to a higher concentration of ammonia in the air, and that increases the risk of respiratory disease. I have identified two other issues: the increased level of heat stress during the later stages of life and increased mortality from about 24 days of age onwards.

The proposed EU directive lays down a maximum stocking density of 30 kg—about 15 chickens—per square metre, but allows a higher density of up to 38 kg—19 chickens—per square metre for producers that comply with certain additional requirements. Those figures are far too high and lead to severe overcrowding.

The UK is one of the member states that wants a maximum density to be set from the start of the directive. I am pleased about that; it may be down to the Minister’s influence. I urge him to continue to insist on the issue. We should not delay until an uncertain and distant date the setting of that important welfare determinant.

I turn to transportation. The continuing and recently expanding transport of live farm animals from this country for further fattening or slaughter abroad is pointless and shot through with risk to animal health and welfare. It is a basic principle that animals should be slaughtered as near to their place of rearing as possible. Although I accept that most livestock animals have to be moved at some time in their lives in their own interests, the frequency, length and complexity of such journeys should be kept to an absolute minimum, and there should be the optimum available standards of care en route.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I have listened to my hon. Friend with interest. Like him, I have spent many years campaigning against live animal exports. My time goes back to when I used to sail on cross-channel ferries that carried on that wretched trade. The introduction of the carriage of calves was a great disappointment to me.

We acknowledge that there have been improvements—marginal, I would say—in the carriage of live animals, but just this afternoon I have heard that two consignments of calves arriving at Dover docks have been inordinately delayed. One of the lorries has been there for more than 14 hours. It might have to wait another 10 hours before it leaves, and even after its trip across the sea it will continue on to places far beyond. I hope that I shall get the opportunity to talk to the Minister directly after this debate.

David Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. From our conversations in Strasbourg and elsewhere, he will know that I agree with every word that he has just said.

Live export for fattening or slaughter fails on every count. It is unwarranted, as animals can readily be fattened and slaughtered at home and their meat exported. Live export frequently involves both land and sea travel, which are covered by legislation that is wholly inadequate to protect animals’ health and welfare. For instance, very little account is taken of such basic animal needs as space allowance, temperature and humidity. The unfamiliar experiences
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and conditions are highly stressful and facilitate the transmission of illnesses in transit.

In 1996, the BSE-related beef ban led to the end of live calf exports. Before that about 500,000 calves a year had been exported from the UK, mainly to veal crates in the Netherlands and France. Sadly, the lifting of the beef ban has resulted in the resumption of live calf exports to continental veal units, and thousands of calves have been exported since the trade started again in May. As the Minister will confirm, DEFRA figures show that 4,400 calves were exported in May and June. Figures for July and August seem not to have been published, or perhaps I have just not been able to get my hands on them.

Since the resumption of the trade in May, the destinations for UK calves have been Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy. They are shipped from Dover—my hon. Friend’s constituency—in chartered roll-on/roll-off ferries. I am strongly opposed to live calf exports because of the detrimental impact of long journeys on welfare and the very poor rearing systems in which calves are often kept on the continent.

Typically, calves are just 15 days old when they are exported from the UK. Scientific research shows that such young calves suffer greatly during long journeys.

Dr. Toby Knowles of Bristol university has concluded:

Veal crates become illegal EU-wide at the end of this year—if I had not said that, I am sure that the Minister would have. We all welcome that move. However, many veal crates have been replaced by extremely barren systems in which calves are kept on concrete or slatted floors without any straw or other bedding.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I wanted to intervene before he left this subject. How can it be right that, within a common market, Dutch farmers receive an extra £50 per head for those calves, when British farmers do not?

David Taylor: That is a pertinent and important question, which I shall transfer to the Minister as one that I would have put myself, had I been able to do all the necessary research.

The systems that will follow veal crates would be illegal in the UK, as our legislation requires calves to be provided with appropriate bedding and to be given more space and more fibrous food than is required by EU legislation. Surely it is morally wrong for UK calves to be sent for rearing abroad in systems that have been prohibited on welfare grounds in the UK.

Unfortunately, thousands upon thousands of calves are shot at birth. I suggest to the Minister, who is an influential figure, that they should neither be shot at birth nor exported for veal production. Instead, the dairy and beef sectors and DEFRA should work together to find welfare-friendly and economically viable uses in the UK for male dairy calves. They could include rearing calves for veal in the UK, where legislation requires higher welfare standards, and/or rearing them for beef. Much of the veal consumed in
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the UK is imported, so UK retailers and caterers should be pressed to use UK veal, which is produced to higher welfare standards than those that generally obtain on the continent.

In addition, as the UK is not yet self-sufficient in beef, it should be possible to expand the proportion of male dairy calves reared for beef. I recognise that they would not provide prime beef, but there is a large demand for second-quality beef, which is used for a range of processed foods.

In July, the CIWF and the RSPCA organised a multi-stakeholder forum entitled “Beyond Calf Exports: Forum for a Humane Dairy Industry”, which was attended by the Minister—as ever, he had his finger on the button. Senior industry figures were also at the forum, which examined ways of finding humane, economically viable uses in the UK for male dairy calves. As further stakeholder meetings are due to take place later this year, will the Minister indicate his assessment of progress so far?

Finally, I turn to live sheep exports. Although the volume of such exports for slaughter abroad has been much reduced in recent years, the trade still persists. In 2000, the year before the foot and mouth disaster, 750,000 sheep were exported for slaughter abroad. In 2004, that figure had sunk to 48,000; last year, exports stood at 37,000 sheep. Almost 7,000 sheep were exported in the first six months of 2006, although that figure is deceptive as sheep exports really begin only in late July, as lambs come to slaughter weight. DEFRA has not yet published figures for exports in July and August, but my impression is that sheep exports this year will end up even greater than in 2005. I would like to hear the Minister’s assessment of that situation.

Sheep export destinations this year include France, Germany and the Netherlands, and some sheep will also go to Italy and Portugal. Traditionally, UK sheep that are exported to the Netherlands are often re-exported within a day or two to Italy or Greece. Over the years, many investigations have documented the great suffering imposed on UK sheep by long journeys to abattoirs in southern Europe. As the hours and days wear on, the sheep become increasingly exhausted, dehydrated and stressed. Some are injured, and some collapse on to the floor of the truck where they risk being trampled by their companions. Sheep should not be exported to continental abattoirs. They should be slaughtered in the UK, and our exports should be in meat form. The sheep industry can and must bring live exports to an end.

In conclusion, I have dealt with only two topics in this enormous field, but I hope that the debate will be a useful contribution to improving animal welfare. Several sectors have an impact on, and some responsibility for, the welfare of farm animals. Clearly, the farming industry has the most obvious and significant effect, and the Government, through their enactments, regulations and enforcement, are charged with ensuring decent standards of care. However, the food industry must carry its share of accountability. Retailers, restaurants and caterers cannot turn a blind eye to animal cruelty carried out by proxy on their behalf.

In the final analysis, consumers have the greatest power of all: buying power. We can drive up standards.
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But to do that, we must be alerted to the key issues through awareness-raising initiatives, and we must be able to recognise higher welfare products such as the RSPCA’s freedom foods through open, honest and accurate labelling. The room for animal welfare complacency in this nation is even more restricted than the space for the thousands of animals squeezed together on cross-channel ferries or the millions of birds packed in appalling conditions in windowless sheds—all of that in our name.

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