67.As we noted in Chapters 2 and 3, the costs of producing higher welfare products could make UK products uncompetitive compared to cheaper, lower-welfare import products—unless quality is in fact a selling point. The AHDB told us that the UK could only truly remain a leader in farm animal welfare “if UK consumers continue to have animal welfare very high on their agendas because this will drive demand (the pull) through the supply chains”. They continued: “There is no doubt that UK consumer demand and awareness play a key role in driving up animal welfare standards.”
68.Yet we heard that UK citizens, who according to Dr Mullan “consistently express high levels of concern for animal welfare”, do not necessarily act upon their concerns in the choices they make as consumers. Ms Batters told us: “There is a popular line of debate that consumers will pay more for animal products from small, extensive, pasture-based systems. We do not recognise that.” Ms Bailey also acknowledged that “You are absolutely right that, when it comes to it, a lot of the time consumers will just look at the cheapest to buy. We have a part to play in education”. In a similar vein, the NPA told us that after Brexit, “UK pig farmers would be delighted to meet the pork requirements of the UK population. However, this requires a better understanding amongst consumers of the welfare credentials of British meat and a willingness to pay accordingly.”
69.Prof Bennett reminded us that food retailers “will be of increasing importance in helping to bridge the gap between producers and consumers”. Dr Mullan told us that “For some products, consumers are seriously overcharged for the welfare benefit”. Mr Mallon agreed: “Retailing, and especially the catering side in some respects, will sell the product at the highest margin possible.” This, the NPA told us, is evident in pork products: “the mark-up for premium/higher-welfare pork in the supermarket compared to standard pork is often around 40% meaning that retailers disincentivise consumers from buying the product”.
70.On the other hand, NFU Scotland told us, “Supermarkets are becoming increasingly proactive in setting welfare standards above the baseline legal standards and competing against each other to use these standards as points of difference in sales.” Red Tractor Assurance agreed: “The main trade buyers in UK retail, brands and some food service operations understand the attitudes of their customers and include animal welfare criteria in their buying specifications; their reputations depend on it.”
71.Mr Stevenson, in contrast to other witnesses quoted above, said that “We are being too pessimistic about consumers”. He highlighted the role of labelling in influencing consumer choices in the egg sector, telling us that “The mandatory labelling of egg packs has played a part in the shift from cage eggs to free range”. He continued: “We have to give consumers more information. Some will just go for the cheapest, but some will play their part in driving welfare improvements.”
72.Other witnesses also highlighted labelling as a way to help consumers to make informed choices. Farmwel stated: “Labels influence consumer behaviour directly at point of sale.” Lynn Frewer, Professor of Food and Society at Newcastle University, agreed that consumers “use the labels as a heuristic to make decisions”. But she also believed that “consumers are totally overwhelmed by the variety of the labels that appear to be promulgated across a range of products”. She added: “An enormous and increasing amount of information is associated with different labels and … there is a gap in consumers’ understanding of what those labels mean, including in relation to animal welfare. The system needs to be simplified.” Farmwel agreed: “Confusing labels have a significant adverse economic impact on those producers operating to higher welfare standards because they undermine natural consumer preferences.”
73.According to Prof Frewer, “It is a really good time, and an opportune moment, to find out what labelling the public—both citizens and consumers—would like to see, possibly using some kind of harmonised system for different supply chains, and through different sectors such as the catering sector and retail sector.” Mr Williams highlighted the catering industry, noting that “the invisible products in caterers are where the problems can arise and where more work needs to be done”. Mr Mallon told us that he “would like to see a label that encourages the buyer or the consumer, or the person out to dinner, to be able to make an informed choice”.
74.Another specific suggestion was reviewing country of origin labelling, with the AHDB explaining that it would “be essential that consumers can readily differentiate between domestically produced, high welfare product and imported product which may, in some cases, have been produced to lower standards”. Dr Crayford agreed: “Britishness is commensurate with higher welfare, so country of origin labelling is really important.”
75.Alongside country of origin labelling, Farmwel proposed mandatory ‘method of production’ labelling, describing it as a “simple measure to enhance transparency”. The RSCPA and Soil Association agreed. Prof Bennett, however, argued that “ideally [labelling] should relate to welfare outcomes. I have real concerns about labelling according to system of production, because that is not the same as high welfare.” Mr Stevenson, in contrast, argued the two approaches could be compatible:
“British consumers want method of production labelling. They want to know how the animal lived and how it was kept. I agree with those who said that it also needs to be backed up by welfare outcomes. It is no good if an animal was kept in what is theoretically a good system if in practice it had a bad life. We need to blend the two.”
Farmwel concurred: “Method of production labelling should be underpinned by robust welfare outcome-based assessments.” Similarly, Ms Ravetz was in favour of “mandatory method of production labelling that is welfare outcome-based”. She continued: “They can be retailer-led, they can be consumer-driven, and there may be a role for regulation in understanding exactly what phrases mean, with all parties in industry—I use the word ‘industry’ in a wider sense—involved in that production labelling.”
76.Mr Stevenson believed that the Government had a role in setting labels: “It was government, through the European Commission, that made the labelling of egg packs mandatory. They tried a voluntary scheme before, but when they introduced the law they said that the voluntary scheme had not worked.” Prof Bennett focused on co-operation: “It requires a partnership approach and needs the Government working with industry and others to make sure that one comes up with a system that makes sense, that the consumer can rely on, and that actually works.” He concluded that “Some sort of mandatory system imposed on industry would be absolutely disastrous”.
77.Mr Stocker told us that one reason the UK was “already renowned for its high levels of animal farm welfare” was that “We have a number of optional farm assurance platforms that farmers can use if they choose to—Red Tractor is one. We also have a number of high-level—or more niche, if you like—farm assurance standards that cater for farmers and the public who want to buy into higher levels of animal welfare.” Prof Bennett also argued that “Farm assurance has been incredibly successful in this country,” a point echoed by Dr Mullan, who believed that accreditation “by trusted farm assurance schemes” was essential to high welfare products.
78.Ms Batters told us that “There is no need to reinvent the wheel … If you want to know that a product has been produced in Britain and packed in Britain, you look for Red Tractor on the shelf. That is how it is traceable from farm to fork. We need government at all levels to really get behind that and to champion that.” The BPC agreed: “Assurance schemes have become extremely competent at setting, auditing, and enforcing standards, and they should continue to do so.” But David Clarke, Chief Executive of Red Tractor Assurance, acknowledged the scheme’s limits: “We certainly do not cover all farms, so if we accept that we play a role in the regulation we have to accept that it is not universal. At the end of the day I am a voluntary scheme. I do not have powers of access to farms that do not sign up to the scheme.”
79.Some witnesses saw assurance schemes as a vehicle for addressing the labelling issues outlined above. Mr Griffiths told us: “The members of across-the-board assurance schemes are very proud of what they do and want to tell people—consumers—what they are doing and to give consumers access to information, should they want it. All assurance schemes do a very good job at that.” But, he qualified, “Government involvement could come in where there is no label.” The CLA agreed: “At present, the range of assurance and accreditation schemes causes confusion and uncertainty … Supermarkets, the food and farming industry and if necessary the Government must ensure that a clear food labelling system is introduced that provides consumers with information about the welfare standards used to produce it”.
80.Though citizens have high aspirations for farm animal welfare in the UK, as consumers they are not always aware of the difference between production systems or willing to pay a higher price for premium welfare products. This could exacerbate the challenge to UK farmers’ competitiveness arising from a potential increase in cheaper imports produced to lower welfare standards.
81.Our evidence suggests that effective and transparent labelling has in some cases helped consumers to distinguish higher welfare products, thereby influencing consumer choices. Given the challenges that will face UK farmers in competing with lower welfare imports post-Brexit, there is now a strong case for simplifying labelling systems, to ensure consumers can easily process and act upon the farm animal welfare information contained in the label. We also note that some call for the introduction of mandatory country of origin and method of production labelling based on welfare outcomes. We urge the Government to consult with the industry, consumers and retailers to ensure that any new or simplified labels or labelling systems are effective and proportionate.
82.We recognise that the retail and catering sectors, from supermarkets to restaurants, will continue to play a key role in promoting the uptake of high farm animal welfare throughout the food chain after Brexit.
83.Voluntary assurance schemes have been effective in increasing standards across the UK and provide high levels of consumer confidence through their inspection and labelling systems. We call on the Government to encourage, and where possible facilitate, uptake of farm assurance schemes across the UK.
84.We note that, for those products which are not produced under the auspices of a voluntary assurance scheme and the associated labelling system, there is a role for Government in setting mandatory labelling requirements.
126 Written evidence from AHDB ()
130 Supplementary written evidence from the NPA ()
134 Supplementary written evidence from the NPA ()
135 Written evidence from NFU Scotland ()
136 Written evidence from Red Tractor Assurance ()
138 Written evidence from Farmwel ()
141 Written evidence from Farmwel ()
144 Written evidence from AHDB ()
146 Written evidence from Farmwel (
147 Written evidence from Soil Association () and RSPCA ()
150 Written evidence from Farmwel ()
158 Written evidence from the BPC ()
160 Written evidence from CLA ()