Let’s get one thing straight. A label on a food product should be accurate, meaningful and representative of what it claims. After all, it’s a communication tool to help consumers.
And that’s what’s so wrong with ‘method of production’ labelling proposals so beloved at the moment by a consortium of animal welfare campaign groups.
They are currently homing in on Defra’s proposal for “The future for food, farming and the environment”, out for consultation until 8 May. And they can scent blood. Because not only does the consultation ask about the accuracy of food labelling, but the issue is being rather successfully positioned at the moment as a pet topic of Secretary of State Michael Gove.
The consortium wants mandatory ‘method of production labelling’ which will tell people whether those animals have been outside or stayed in during their life or production cycle.
And what’s the problem with that? Surveys show people value animals having outside access and relate to many intrinsic pleasures such as interaction with nature or feeling the sun on your skin. A conversation with an uninformed member of the public will more often than not reveal the same sentiment.
My beef is this. Outdoor access has the potential to contribute to good welfare, but it does not make good welfare – and in fact can mask poor welfare. While the stated aim of campaigners is transparency for the consumer, the ambition is to create an easy proxy for welfare. And that is wrong.
Take this example.
Almost all cows in the UK are housed for at least 5-6 months of the winter. Some cow housing can be poor simply because it’s outdated, has bad infrastructure to handle slurry and waste, or uses cubicle beds which are just too small for today’s bigger-framed cow. The issues with this type of housing are well documented in science. It can cause lameness, mastitis and lesions where the cow rubs continually against struts and poorly positioned barriers. So allowing those cows outside for 6-7 months of the year provides a welcome respite and opportunities to remedy these issues.
Consider newer state-of-the-art housing. It has comfort cubicles, a dry and airy environment, rubber flooring and plenty of space and light. When the cows are turned out there is rarely any change in their health as they accumulate no issues during the housing period. Furthermore, they show less inclination to go out when offered the choice.
Now imagine the cows in the first scenario are turned out for 6-7 months each year, and in the second, for just 1-2 months. What is the determinant of better health and welfare – the length of the period the cows go out, or the quality of their housing?
It’s not straightforward. Being outside can offer a level of behavioural enrichment that’s hard to match where cows are housed continually. But behavioural enrichment is not, as many welfare campaign groups seem to suggest, all that matters. Welfare is about a good life, so pleasure, enjoyment and contentment. But it’s also about freedom from pain, hunger, thirst and fear. And it’s about company of one’s own kind (hey all you owners of single dogs, cats and horses out there….!).
Cows on extended grazing systems can suffer from the extreme effects of the weather such as heat stress in summer and exposure in winter – as we have found recently. They are at greater risk of exposure to parasites and some pathogens, and can fail to take in enough feed to maintain their weight. Cows in housing can have a greater risk of lameness, mastitis and lesions as outlined in the example above – and can also lack behavioural stimulation. While good management can mitigate almost all risks in either, poor management can also exacerbate them.
This conundrum extends beyond dairy cows. Free range eggs have enjoyed a surge in demand but science says barn or caged eggs may provide better health and welfare. Bird flu is also an ongoing threat to free range flocks, and pigs in outdoor systems can suffer greater mortality. Admittedly, there’s no greater indicator of poor health than death.
This tells me we are measuring apples to try and get pears, and we need to go back to the drawing board. To know the quality of health and welfare, we need to measure how healthy and happy an animal is. To know the level of outdoor access (which is a closer proxy for a ‘naturalness’ than it is welfare), we need to measure how long they spend outdoors. When the consortium, Labelling Matters, states “scientific research shows that certain intensive production systems are intrinsically incapable of delivering high welfare outcomes”, I say: “maybe”… but neither should we assume outdoor access is intrinsically capable of delivering them.
So here’s a proposal.
Let’s get rid of all the crap, meaningless labelling where fake farm names are used. Let’s not suggest through words or pictures that animals go outside if they don’t. But let’s also stop using terms like ‘intensive’ and ‘factory farming’, which are just as misleading as ‘grass-fed’ or ‘farm fresh’.
Where the legal minimum is met, let’s just not label it. No quality label means legal UK minimum for all foods, whether homegrown or imported. Simple.
Let’s call food British when it is genuinely from the UK. Not Irish, or slaughtered in the UK, but reared and milked or laying or slaughtered in the UK.
Let’s make sure Red Tractor is above legal minimum if we are going to use it. And producers who don’t meet the standard get barred from the scheme.
Then where we can separate the supply chain and charge the extra costs of doing so, let’s firstly have a health and welfare assessment label that looks wholly at outcome measures for how healthy, happy and enriched the animal is. Alongside that – and only alongside that otherwise it will be as misleading as ‘farm fresh’ – have a label declaring the amount of outside access that animal has had.
We have the intelligence, we have the measures. Let’s now inject some sense into this debate.
One can’t help but feel for Oxfam’s 5,000+ employees and 20,000+ volunteers worldwide. A violation of trust – where several employees of Oxfam were alleged to be regularly paying local prostitutes, some of them teenagers, for sex, while working in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 – is unpeeling the organisation like an onion. The media keep looking for more fault, and finding it. And now the blameless involved in the daily workings of Oxfam, whether implementing projects, administering its workings or volunteering in shops or on the ground where needed, are placed in the unacceptable position of having to defend Oxfam.
The ramifications are already engraved on the wall. Trust has been lost, and overt virtue-signalling will result in withdrawal of government funding, mass exodus of celebrities and haemorrhaging of donors. Leaving the (presumably) vast majority of projects that are executed professionally and ethically exactly…where?
The blame lies with the perpetrators first and foremost of course. But is it feasible to think that in all the charities worldwide, there isn’t either some malpractice from the occasional bad apple, or that good people won’t sometimes do bad things when worn down by years of compassion fatigue or temptation?
What about the regulation provided by the Charities Commission? Having observed a certain toothlessness in its workings with animal welfare charities, who seem to suffer from ‘mission drift’, the watchdog has already been criticised for failing to respond to complaints about Oxfam raised in 2015.
But from a communications perspective, the blame for today’s media headlines can only lie with the Oxfam board and top level of management. It made the mistake of treating the issue as if it was an internal matter, seeming to take a ‘least said soonest mended’ approach, where it hoped the removal of the people involved would show the problem had been dealt with. That could be have been enough, but as we know now, it wasn’t.
I recently read of an interesting concept called the ‘Pre-mortem’ in Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. When nearing a group or committee decision, doubts are increasingly suppressed and doubters treated as disloyal. This can lead to overconfidence in the wisdom of the decision with those having valid concerns unable to have a voice. The pre-mortem asks the decision-makers to project a year into the future, when the initiative transpires to have been a total disaster, and take 5-10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster. As Kahneman says, the main virtue of the pre-morten is it legitimises doubt. Furthermore, he explains, it encourages even the supporters of the decision to search for previously unconsidered threats.
One can only speculate the discussion around the Oxfam boardroom table about the travesties uncovered in Haiti when they emerged. When faced with the potential of a trying, difficult and risky episode from baring all, or dealing with it quietly, was the easier and more attractive option taken? Did the board genuinely think it was not a matter worthy of external scrutiny? Did someone express a concern that this problem needed to be ‘outed’, publicly and cleanly, and action which the public and authorities would deem proportionate be taken? One would hope so, but that voice, if it existed, was not heeded.
Whatever happened, two lessons emerge for me. First, be the first to get news out there, especially if it’s as damaging as this. By simply getting into this situation in the first place, there is no no-risk course of action. All you can seek to do is minimise damage by controlling the message, its timing and delivery.
Second, listen to those voices. Has the downside of your chosen course been fully explored? A little more pre-mortem may prevent the need for a traumatic post-mortem.