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When I started In Conversation With, I never imagined how the world could change from one post to the next. Only 6 weeks ago farmers were seen as pariah’s in the media but this pandemic has shown they are essential workers working hard to keep the nation fed. I hope this new respect for our farmers and support for domestic food production continues past the crisis.

This month I’m speaking to Natasha Smith, Senior Campaigns Manager at Compassion in World Farming about Zoonotic Diseases, which is diseases transmitted from animals to humans, and it’s thought how the coronavirus started. As well as the need for Honest Labelling and why we need to move away from intensive farming.

One of your campaigns is calling for Honest Labelling, one that Free Range Dairy Network supports, can you expand on your aims for that campaign and why you think it’s important?  

This is such a crucial campaign. So often I find that, when I’m explaining what drives Compassion in World Farming’s work, I’m met with the response, “that sounds great – but the labels on meat and dairy products make it so difficult to know whether I’m really buying a higher welfare product!”. It’s so true, meat and dairy labels can be incredibly misleading and hard to decipher, preventing consumers from making informed choices about the products they purchase. Marketing techniques can be clever at creating confusing visual and written cues that make shoppers feel, at a glance, that they are buying a fair, sustainable product, when in fact they are not.

Intensively reared products frequently show images of happy animals in rolling fields, suggesting they have been farmed outdoors, when in reality the livestock are crammed into barren cages, kept indoors all their lives, or reared in such close confinement that they are unable to express their natural behaviours. Generic, meaningless terms like ‘all natural’ and ‘farm fresh’ are brandished across many factory farmed food packets when in fact more appropriate slogans would be ‘raised in confinement’ or ‘grown quickly in captivity’.

When you think about it, it’s obvious: the truth about factory farming isn’t advertised on food labels because it’s an unsavoury one! But all consumers deserve to know the truth about the conditions in which their meat and dairy products have been produced.

Although around 70% of UK farm animals are reared in intensive systems, there is no law requiring food labels to say how an animal has been raised – except for whole hens’ eggs. That’s why Compassion is calling for the introduction of mandatory method of production labelling for all meat and dairy products.

Confusing food labels are fundamentally unfair, not only to the countless farm animals whose suffering they conceal, but also to committed higher welfare farmers whose products often fail to stand out from the crowd. Honest Labelling would create confidence for producers wishing to invest in higher welfare farm systems.

We’ve had Veganuary and Februdairy, but in March because of the pandemic we’ve seen people struggle to buy any food, let alone make better choices. Do you think this will change our relationship with food again?  

This could be a defining moment in determining the future of our food system. The truth is, our current relationship to food, which involves ever-increasing levels of meat and dairy consumption, is unsustainable. Not only is it putting huge strain on our environment – it also poses huge risks to human health.

Although this current pandemic did not originate from a factory farm, intensive farming systems, which account for the vast majority of global meat and dairy produced, do have the potential to cause a global pandemic. Swine fever and bird flu are two recent examples of zoonotic diseases caused by viruses that spread quickly amongst animals, particularly factory farmed animals that have a reduced immunity to disease and live in crowded conditions.

This pandemic is a wake-up call for us all – and we must learn from it. It’s time for us all to work together to build a healthy, sustainable food system that respects animals, people, and the planet. That means reducing our meat and dairy intake and, by extension, rearing fewer livestock overall, whilst ensuring that those animals that are still reared are raised in higher welfare conditions.

All of this brings us back to the importance of providing consumers with honest information about the meat and dairy products they purchase in the first place, so that all of us can help to shape a food system that is sustainable for generations to come.

A recent survey by Censuswide UK shows that because of food shortages people are shopping local and plan to continue that. Do you see your Honest Labelling campaign as being part of helping people make better food choices? 

As mentioned above, Compassion’s Honest Labelling campaign is fundamental to helping people make better food choices. We only need to look at the example of free range eggs to see that honest labels really do result in more people choosing to buy higher welfare produce. Since the UK Government made it mandatory for whole eggs to be labelled according to their method of production in 2004 – be it caged, barn, free range, or organic – free range egg production has doubled, now taking up around two thirds of all eggs sold. That in turn has triggered a tidal wave of commitments from the food industry to move to cage free egg production. All of this has made it so much easier and more affordable for individual consumers to make higher welfare choices when buying eggs.

Building on the success achieved in the egg industry, Honest Labelling of all meat and dairy products would shed light on the horrors of factory farming and create a kinder system – for farm animals, people, and the planet.

One thing I hear all the time when I’m at events for Free Range Dairy Network is ‘Don’t all cows go outside to graze?’ A map you produced in 2017 shows this isn’t the case. Why do you think this message isn’t getting through and how can we work together to get that message out? 

The map shows that labelling is such a key factor here. If the labels on dairy products from intensively farmed cows display happy cows in rolling fields, how can the consumer be expected to know the true method of production used?

Voluntary labelling schemes like the Pasture Promise logo – which guarantees that cows are grazed for at least six months of the year – are the way forward, and it’s crucial that the sector continues to adopt, support, and raise awareness of such programmes.

Welfare-conscious consumers need to know what to look for on the label. However, it is essential that we lobby the UK Government to make method of production labelling mandatory on all meat and dairy products, so that shoppers can rest assured that they’re making an informed choice.

People care about animal welfare but often it can be price that really drives decision making. With food trends towards less but better quality dairy and meat, could this be the opportunity to move towards a higher welfare system that puts taste and quality above price when it comes to buying milk, dairy and meat? 

Absolutely! Attitudes need to shift. If people were able to make informed choices through Honest Labelling, it would lead in a reduction in demand for intensively farmed meat and dairy and put quality before quantity.

 If the demand for meat fell, and people really started to value quality over quantity, the benefits would be immense. It would help to alleviate the suffering of countless animals, protect our health and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, and safeguard our planet.

Thank you Natasha. If you want to support the campaign, please take action here to call for Honest Labelling on all meat and dairy production.

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