The Government will ‘fully consider’ the various concerns raised by the industry as it develops new animal welfare labelling laws, Farming Minister Mark Spencer has told farming and food industry leaders.
Defra’s plans to introduce compulsory animal welfare labelling regulations, which are expected to be set out in a formal consultation soon, have been heavily criticised across the industry, including by the NPA.
In January, the leaders of various key industry organisations – NFU, NPA, British Meat Processors Association, the Food and Drink Federation, Dairy UK and the British Poultry Council – set out their concerns in a letter to the Defra Minister.
“Collectively, we do not agree that this proposal is in the consumer’s interest. We believe it could unintentionally lead to further misunderstanding around animal welfare,” they said.
The letter warned that the Government’s record on farmed animal welfare will be ‘eroded by this proposal, while adding further inflationary costs without meaningful consumer benefit’.
They pointed out that while there is value in providing consumers with transparent information about the food they eat, the limitations of using labelling to convey complex information like animal welfare must be acknowledged.
“Mandatory method of production labelling will not deliver continual improvement of farm animal health, as method of production is not the key determinant of animal welfare,” the letter stated. “The science is clear that attention to detail and professional management of our flocks and herds is a greater determinant of animal welfare, but this is much more difficult to translate into a clear and useful consumer labelling framework.”
The industry leaders, including NPA chair Rob Mutimer, told Mr Spencer. said there was an ‘opportunity to ensure marketing terms are standardised to increase consumer transparency around the terms used to market products, for example defining free range dairy, beef and pigs’.
“Labelling should be voluntary and follow compulsory rules when certain terms are used to ensure accuracy and consistency,” the letter said, adding that this will allow businesses to be market-led in unlocking the value from these dedicated supply chains.
“As representatives from right across the supply chain, we are united in our opinion that the current proposal is not the right one? for consumers and neither is it the right time to add further complexity and regulation into the supply chain, in particular the pig and poultry sectors.”
Responding in late-April, Mr Spencer said the initial call for evidence on welfare labelling reforms in 2021, ‘pointed to the fact that consumers do face barriers to purchasing products produced to UK welfare standards or higher, including through lack of transparency in the absence of a simple standardised labelling approach, and affordability where higher-welfare products are sold at a premium’.
He suggested the new approach could help farmers ‘fully capture the value of products which meet or exceed UK welfare regulations’.
But he added: “You raised several important considerations for labelling reforms in your letter and I can reassure you that these have been fully considered when developing our proposals.
“I note in particular your concerns that labelling reforms could create additional costs; proposals have been carefully designed to minimise supply chain impacts, including an 18-month implementation period so that label updates can be incorporated into normal business cycles.”
He said the proposals also seek to build on the success of existing assurance schemes, using ‘earned recognition’, and on existing industry standards such as the Pork Provenance Code and voluntary poultry meat marketing standards.
“Officials have visited processing plants to understand how the need for additional segregation can be reduced or removed,” he said.
He acknowledged that it was difficult for the industry to comment on the full impact of the changes without seeing the details of the proposals.
“We have shared some of our thinking on this informally as proposals have developed and hope to be able to share a proposition for wider views when we formally consult,” he said.
NPA chief executive Lizzie Wilson said: “We welcome Minister Spencer’s promise to listen to the industry’s significant concerns over this policy.
“As set out by us and others in the letter, the NPA has concerns about how meaningful an additional label could be, the complexity of delivering the policy and the associated economic impact this could have on our sector.”
“All we ask, as we continue to set out our position and the reasons behind it once the consultation comes out, is that these views will be taken into account.”