Like many people, I am concerned by animal welfare but also rely on official organisations like the RCPA and their Freedom Food campaign:
When you see the Freedom Food label you know that animals have been kept to strict RSPCA welfare standards. The standards cover the whole of an animals’ life, not just their time on farm. A stimulating environment and plenty of room to move around are just two of the many benefits.
Freedom Food can also be an affordable ethical choice, as they approve indoor as well as free range and organic farms. So, make one small change to your shopping and one big change to farm animal welfare.
With the horrors of battery farms so well documented, we are especially watchful when it comes to eggs and chicken, and have been buying “Happy Eggs” for some time. In their welfare page, The Happy Egg Co. state:
All our farmers are dedicated to the wellbeing of their hens and every farm has acres of outdoor space for our hens to roam free, plenty of playhouses, trees and foliage for them to explore and rummage around in, as well as indoor space with nest boxes to give them a little bit of privacy when they’re laying.
I was therefore shocked to read a Viva investigation of “Happy Eggs” farms, which is still doing the rounds online, in which they report:
“… a very different story – one of disease, incarceration, mutilation, short lives and electric shocks.”
It makes for some pretty uncomfortable reading and, if true, really is shocking. If it’s true. The thing is, the expose by Viva is not necessarily neutral - Viva is the “Vegetarians International Voice for Animals”:
“Eating meat; fish and dairy causes environmental destruction, damages human health, contributes to global hunger and inflicts immense suffering on billions of animals across the world.
Viva! believes that the solution to all these problems is in our own hands: the best way to stop the destruction and the cruelty is to stop eating animals now – go vegetarian, or better still, vegan.”
I actually agree with a number of their points but not to the point that I think going vegetarian is the answer. We should eat less meat, certainly - not every day - and there is no need for the cheap, budget meat that floods supermarkets. Animal welfare is very important - how an animal lives is more important in many ways than how it dies. (In nature, animal death is rarely pleasant.)
The worrying thing, however, is not that Viva appears to have an agenda to discredit poultry (and other meat) farming but rather than the RSPCA and Freedom Food considered legal action and accused “Viva and Channel Five of reporting out of context and of withholding important information about animal welfare.” The lack of context included one of the farms being “under veterinary supervision for an outbreak of erysipelas” - a disease that “can unfortunately cause high levels of mortality as well as feather loss”, which accounts for some of the unpleasant observations.
That’s not the worst of the counter-accusations, though:
But the RSPCA is seemingly most angered by the fact that Viva had sat on its findings for three months, only releasing them in early October - to conincide with British Egg Week.
“If Viva had footage that demonstrated a problem as far back as July, then it should have been reported immediately so that the appropriate action could have been taken,” said the statement. “It is disturbing that this information was withheld when there was potential for on-going suffering.
“As a result of the issues raised above and the manner in which Channel Five provided evidence, we are seeking legal advice.”
A separate statement from the Happy Egg Co said it regarded the happiness of its hens as its top priority and it had immediately put in place an audit of all its farms.
So, who to believe?
The closest I have found so far to neutral coverage is on the Spud and Spike blog, which (as far as I can gather) is a personal blog by a mum on the adventures of her two kids. In a post from about a year ago (the expose itself is from 2010) - “Our visit to a Happy Egg Co Farm!” - the author reports conditions much more akin to the Happy Eggs & RSCPA point of view.
“Compassion in World Farming was founded over 40 years ago in 1967 by a British farmer who became horrified by the development of modern, intensive factory farming.
Today we campaign peacefully to end all cruel factory farming practices. We believe that the biggest cause of cruelty on the planet deserves a focused, specialised approach – so we only work on farm animal welfare.”
I still find the Viva report a bit worrying - some of the welfare breaches (or “non-compliance issues”) reported were confirmed by the RSPCA - as well as some of the other reports that the RSPCA Freedom Food campaign is not really doing what it says in terms of the depth and frequency of welfare checks. That said, when reports seem to be coming from biased and unreliable sources, it is hard to know what is true and what is not.
If Viva really did sit on their footage for two or three months then they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Prolonging unnecessarily animal suffering is bad enough when it is done for food or for profit. If it is being done purely for publicity by an organisation that is nominally pro-welfare, that really would be unforgivable.
For now, I am going to continue eating Happy Egg Co. eggs - and I think I will be getting my future welfare information from Compassion in World Farming.