Previous Section Index Home Page

4 Mar 2008 : Column 358WH—continued

As ever, the EU has legislated in the area of animal welfare. An EU Council directive— 2007/43/EC—gained political agreement in May 2007. That new EU directive will come into force on 30 June 2010. It sets out minimum standards for the protection of chickens reared for meat production. Now, that is obviously welcome in relation to most of Europe, where those standards needed to rise. The directive itself allows 42 kg of birds per square
4 Mar 2008 : Column 359WH
metre. However, the difficulty with the directive, and it is why I seek some reassurance from the Minister, is that British standards run way ahead of that standard already. Our standard is for 38 kg of birds per square metre. The perverse side of this EU directive is that it could allow a lowering of standards in this country if farmers were to comply with it. I seek some reassurance from the Minister that the Government will make it very clear to farmers that they need to stick by the British standard and not revert to an EU standard that would make animal welfare worse.

Another issue in relation to Europe is that there is a slight concern that there are some in the EU who are trying to delay the proposed ban on battery cages, which is due to come into force by 2012. Again, if the Minister could reassure me on that issue, I would be grateful.

There is also a slight problem with the House of Commons. Immediately after the television programmes on animal welfare were broadcast, I decided to table a parliamentary question to find out how much free-range food, including free-range chicken, we consumed in the House of Commons. I think that there are about 22 restaurants and bars in this place, so we consume a fair amount. The answer came back from the House of Commons Commission that, in fact, less than 10 per cent. of the food that we consume here is sourced from free-range goods. It seems to me that if we are trying to influence and persuade others of the importance of this issue, we could make a jolly good start by getting our own house in order.

In many cases, I think that we could solve this problem fairly quickly. The RSPCA has been very helpful in that regard and I am seeking at the moment to arrange a meeting between the RSPCA and the House of Commons Commission, which oversees food production for the Commons. Again, if the Minister could say something helpful to me on that issue, it might help me to arrange that meeting a little more quickly, because at the moment it seems to be taking a bit of time to arrange it. The RSPCA is certainly happy to come here with practical suggestions about how the House of Commons catering could do much more to get that figure for free-range food up from 10 per cent.

Another area in which I would welcome some support from the Minister is in trying to see what we could do to help with providing better quality food in our schools. Again, Jamie Oliver led a big campaign on this issue two or three years ago and the Government responded; that campaign was about trying to move children away from turkey twizzlers and towards eating more salads. However, there is still an alarming problem, in that much of the food sourced in our schools throughout the country is food that we would neither wish our children to eat nor food that we would purchase ourselves. From my perspective, having a couple of daughters who are now constantly on my case about this issue, the irony is that, when they go to school, they are probably eating food that they would find totally unacceptable.

In recent years, Hampshire education authority sourced its chicken for schools from Indonesia and I cannot begin to think what the animal welfare consequences of that decision are. I am pleased to say that, more recently,
4 Mar 2008 : Column 360WH
Hampshire county council has improved that situation and it is doing much more to try to source its food from other alternatives.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): One of my pet subjects is that a lot of county councils still have their own farm estates and it galls me that one of the ways that we could make dramatic improvements in this area is to use those farm estates as the source for all food for educational institutions. However, that always seems to be too difficult and too expensive to achieve, which I find very disappointing.

Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Furthermore, one would see educational benefits from showing children how that food was produced. The issue relates to a fundamental theme that runs through all of the points that I am making, which is that there is a great opportunity for us to take a lead with British agriculture, sourcing these products locally wherever possible, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said.

The good news is that some schools have changed practice. The Humphrey Perkins high school in Leicestershire is now one of the first schools to serve only free-range food. However, if the Minister could perhaps have a word with officials in the Department for Children, Schools and Families to see if there is anything that we can do to encourage local education authorities to change their practice in this regard, I would be grateful.

I have spoken for much longer than I intended and I apologise for that. A range of animal welfare issues affects consumers, retailers and ourselves as politicians. I have raised a couple of specific issues for the Minister to consider, but there is an open door now for real progress in this area. I hope that this morning’s debate will be a timely chance for us to take stock of where we are going on animal welfare and if, as politicians, we can use a light touch to help move animal welfare standards further on in a more positive direction, that would be welcome.

9.58 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate. He has raised some very important issues. Like him, I think that this is the first time that I have ever spoken on animal welfare issues in the House, although, unlike him, I did not see the recent television programmes on animal welfare that he mentioned.

I should probably start by outing myself, I guess, in that I have been vegetarian for nearly 27 years and vegan for 16 years, I think; the decision to become vegan, which, I think, I made in 1992, was one of those new year’s resolutions that I managed to keep. Obviously, therefore, I come to this debate with certain prejudices and I do not need to be convinced by watching the television programmes that others have been talking about.

Having said that, I very much welcome the interest that has been taken in this subject by people such as the celebrity chefs and the hon. Members attending today’s debate, and I also welcome the fact that the media have taken up the issue of the welfare of battery chickens. However, although it is great that the media are focusing on that one issue, it is only a small segment of some of the concerns that I have about animal welfare standards
4 Mar 2008 : Column 361WH
generally. There is a move towards industrial production of food; farming has become an industry. The sheer scale of production is enormous: as we have heard, 800 million chickens a year are produced in the UK. As that scale of production is replicated across the whole agriculture sector, I have real concerns about what that will mean for animal welfare standards.

I should say that I have no intention of getting anybody else to become a vegan, although a surprising number of my constituents are vegetarians. However, I hope that I can raise the issues of welfare standards and battery chickens, so that people can pick them up.

As we have heard, there will be a ban on battery cages from the beginning of 2012, but my concern is that enriched cages will still be permissible. If we look at the details, we see that such cages are only slightly larger than the battery cages that are legal at the moment. Although enriched cages have perches, the birds are still kept in very confined conditions, which means that they cannot fulfil their natural behaviours. We have gone a certain way down the road with battery cages, but the current alternatives are not particularly acceptable.

Barn eggs will, of course, still be legal. Although they are presented as an animal-friendly alternative, the birds can be kept in flocks of up to 16,000 to 20,000. Regulations state that there should be only nine birds per square metre, but studies have shown that as many as 15 birds can be crammed into that area. Birds often end up pecking each other featherless because of the distress caused by being so packed in. That is still a form of factory farming, even though the birds are not in cages.

Even with free-range eggs, there are concerns. The birds are housed in huge sheds, although they must obviously have outside access to be classed as free range. Often, the shed will have only a few small holes leading outside, and it can be quite difficult for some of the birds to access them, because of aggressive behaviour by other birds. Research by an Oxford university team in 2003 found that although free-range birds must, by law, be given eight hours’ access each day to the outdoors, fewer than 15 per cent. of the birds in very large systems, which hold up to 9,000 birds, could get outside in practice. We are therefore kidding ourselves if we feel that free range is the ideal solution and that we are meeting all the relevant standards just by classing something as free range. More than 75 per cent. of hens in the UK are kept in flocks of at least 20,000, so it is only the small producers who can guarantee that the welfare of free-range birds is being protected as it should.

There are other cruelties involved in mass production. Debeaking or beak trimming is carried out on a large proportion of laying hens, no matter what production system is used, and that includes free range. Birds are also fed artificial colorants so that their eggs have yellower yokes, and are required to produce more than 300 eggs a year, which is way more than a bird would naturally produce. As a result, the amount of calcium that birds must produce to make the egg shell means that they suffer from osteoporosis, although I do not quite understand the technicalities. Each year, about 2 million hens in battery cages die before the end of their natural lifespan.

Early-day motion 954 raises the issues brought up by the Jamie Oliver programme, including the gassing of the male chicks that are not needed. Two quite distinct strains of birds are produced in this country: those that
4 Mar 2008 : Column 362WH
are suitable for meat production and those that are suitable for egg laying. If the birds have been bred for egg laying, the male chicks will not be suitable as meat chickens and they are destroyed when they are a day old. The early-day motion rightly raises the issue of their being gassed, but other alternatives include a machine called an homogeniser, which minces the chicks alive. About 300 million male chicks are killed when they are a day old because they are no use to anybody.

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Lady spells out very clearly some of the problems with labelling food as outdoor, free range and freedom food, but I return to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. One way to address the issue is for consumers to demand better prescriptions for production, and people have done that. Does the hon. Lady agree that McDonald’s, in serving only free-range eggs, is perhaps moving in the right direction?

Kerry McCarthy: As the hon. Gentleman can imagine, I am reluctant to congratulate McDonald’s on many things, but the more that producers and retailers can do, the better, although I would question whether some of the free-range produce meets the standards that it is expected to meet.

I want briefly to skim through a few issues relating to other forms of food production. Some 35 million turkeys a year are bred for food and they are kept in similar conditions to chickens. Many of them also die from starvation, infection and disease before they are ready to be slaughtered for food.

The House has debated the inhumane production of foie gras. Geese are force fed until their livers are 10 times the size of that of an ordinary goose, which makes breathing and walking difficult. We are told that it is not possible to ban foie gras imports under current EU law, and we should address that. Another issue that I have taken up with the Minister is the zero-grazing of cattle, which involves cattle being kept totally indoors and not being allowed out to graze.

Last year, I was involved in a campaign with Viva!, a vegetarian charity in Bristol. The campaign was aimed at farrowing crates, in which sows are kept while they are pregnant and weaning their piglets. It is impossible for sows to turn around in such crates or to engage in any of their natural behaviour. Farrowing crates are used for about 80 per cent. of the UK’s breeding sows, and that, too, needs to be addressed.

I want to turn now to a slightly different issue. We are trying to do what we can to address these problems in the UK and the EU, but where do we go in terms of the standards that we expect other countries to adopt? It is illegal under World Trade Organisation rules to ban imports into the EU on the basis that they do not meet the EU’s animal welfare standards. Although we can phase out battery cages in the EU, we cannot tell the developing world that we will not import its goods because they do not meet our standards. We need to address that at an international level.

The issue is particularly important given the rising levels of meat and dairy consumption in the developing world, particularly in places such as China. China’s meat consumption has gone from an average of 4 kg per person 40 years ago to nearly 60 kg per person today. It is estimated that China will reach US meat consumption levels of 125 kg per person by 2031, which, I am told,
4 Mar 2008 : Column 363WH
amounts to four-fifths of current world meat production. I would like to know what we can do internationally to ensure that such meat production meets the standards that we expect in the EU. Even India, where meat consumption is traditionally low, is massively increasing its consumption of meat, and poultry production is one of the fastest-growing segments of its agricultural sector.

Finally, the environmental consequences of increased meat production and consumption are just beginning to be recognised, and the Minister has probably come across that issue in his day job. It takes 9 kg of cereal to produce 1 kg of beef, so there is a real issue about the amount of agricultural land that we would have to use to produce animal feed if we moved towards the patterns of meat consumption that I have outlined. Together with the move towards biofuels, that is something that we really need to address.

In that respect, there is also the issue of water use. On average, I am told, it takes about 180 litres of water to produce a battery egg, whereas the poorest people in India use an average of only 10 litres a day. A slaughterhouse in Brazil uses 10,000 cu m of water each working day, but 25 per cent. of the country does not have access to safe drinking water. There is a real question about how we address such issues internationally and require countries to meet our standards. On that note, however, I will finish.

10.9 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I could speak for a long time, but I shall not. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, which has been brief, but nevertheless well informed and balanced, rather than hysterical. The problems highlighted by the television programmes to which he referred present us with challenges that are not easily solved. We all want the situation to improve, but there is a great potential for unintended consequences that could, in fact, make it worse.

There are no specific, legally binding requirements for the welfare conditions of chickens in this country, but we are moving towards EU regulation. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the problem is that in raising standards among EU colleagues, we risk allowing ours to fall. Strong welfare standards apply already to UK poultry, in the form of the red tractor scheme, which is a guarantee of high standards across the sector with regard to welfare, housing, feed, health and hygiene. The scheme includes requirements that birds should be given a decent amount of space and be tended by skilled staff. Those standards are independently inspected each year.

Mr. Roger Williams: Livestock production can be managed in different ways, but the key to animal welfare is the person responsible for those animals and the staff whom they employ. The difficulty with labelling is that anything can be claimed, but whether it is being delivered is another matter, and it depends on the staff.

Tim Farron: The difficulty with farming in general is that reduced margins for the producer mean reduced capacity to ensure that those doing the work—
4 Mar 2008 : Column 364WH
stockmen and others handling the animals—have the skills necessary to do their job well. The problem is that, in ensuring that standards are high enough, we might create an overbearing bureaucracy. One of the advantages of the red tractor logo system is that the standards are inspected independently every year without the need for an overbearing bureaucratic apparatus.

As we have heard, the RSPCA has pointed out that the dichotomy that is normally presented—battery farming versus free range—is often a false one. It should be commended for that. I am sure that many colleagues will agree that indoor poultry rearing can often be extremely humane and that, conversely, many chickens reared in nominally free-range circumstances live in extremely poor welfare conditions. As a cadre of politicians, our priorities ought to be to ensure high welfare standards for all animals, to enable farming to be viable and not unduly regulated, to safeguard our poultry industry, to ensure that consumers know what they are buying and to encourage them to buy produce that has been reared humanely.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and those made in a debate that I led in this Chamber less than 18 months ago, which have helpfully been incorporated in the debate pack, on the importance of requiring that labelling be honest, open and accurate? So much of it is misleading. An animal can be bred to slaughter weight and slaughtered in a foreign country, shipped to Kent—or somewhere like that—wrapped or subjected to a minor process, and then described as “UK produce”. That cannot be allowed, can it?

Tim Farron: I plan to cover that later, but I agree absolutely. It is vital that labelling is accurate and honest. One suspects that retailers—not least the all-powerful supermarkets—sometimes take advantage of the ambiguity in the system.

The UK is almost 90 per cent. self-sufficient in meat, poultry and egg production, which is an encouraging starting position from which to build on, given the Government’s stated concern about reducing food miles and ensuring food security. Any move to excessive and narrow regulation might easily prove counter-productive. Over the past few years, the volume of imports of poultry produce into this country has risen by roughly 10 per cent. each year. Clearly, one of the reasons behind that is that imports are often cheaper, largely owing to the fact that it can be cheaper to rear poultry in poor conditions. If we over-regulate in our desire for even better welfare conditions at home, we might simply add to costs to the industry here, thus making it less competitive, and therefore open the door to imports, the market strength of which sadly lies in sub-standard welfare conditions.

Mr. Drew: This is partly in relation to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy): if we go on like this, there will never be any change in the WTO rules, which quite simply are completely wrong. We should encourage countries exporting very cheap livestock to produce it for their own markets. That is how they will raise their standards. It is about time that we took on the WTO.

Next Section Index Home Page