LONDON, England, June 26, 2013- Illinois Farm Bureau members covered 400 miles of England this week, where they visited poultry, pig and cattle farms of various sizes and observed that customer perceptions of animal production are driving the regulatory and legislative policies in the United Kingdom.
The National Farmers Union (NFU), which is described by Illinois Farm Bureau as the UK’s equivalent of the American Farm Bureau Federation, organized several farm visits for the Illinois group this week as part of its Animal Care European Union Study tour.
They visited the director of Loughborough-based Sunrise Eggs, Phillip Crawley. He runs an operation of 550,000 laying hens serving the United Kingdom’s supermarkets and packing two to three percent of the UK’s eggs.
Crawley, who inherited the farming operation with his brother after his father began in 1971, is experiencing the wave of change in the EU’s animal welfare laws for agriculture. He has 250,000 free range chickens in addition to colony housed chickens. In January 2012, EU requirements for laying hens officially shifted to enriched cages with a ban on battery cages, forcing the entire industry to enter into a major transition.
In the United Kingdom, 45 percent of chickens are raised in enriched cages, while 45 percent are free range and the remaining ten percent are organic or small barns.
Crawley noted that he is willing to do most things that are “perceived as higher welfare,” as long as the competition is playing by the same rules. “I’ll do it, as long as everyone does it,” he said, adding that “it hurts” economically when fellow member states in the EU do not comply with new regulations and are not enforced to do so by the EU regulatory authorities.
NFU’s Chris Dickinson said the UK became fully compliant one month after final implementation, but 18 months into the battery cage ban, Italy and Greece are still not following the new requirements. However, “Farmers are finding enriched cages are an efficient way of production,” he noted.
In order to get a premium for its product in UK groceries, Sunrise Eggs subscribes to the Red Lion program. If the Red Lion association’s inspectors audit the farm and determine all production methods meet certain animal welfare requirements, the product label includes a red lion that customers associate with higher quality of care.
Similar to the NFU’s Red Tractor program, the Red Lion program provides an audit guarantee for animal welfare standards for its subscribers, but it applies only to eggs. It also lives up to its high quality claims, according to Crawley.
“Any quality scheme is only as good as its bite-- and the Lion bites,” he said. “As a farmer, you generally fear the Lion audit.”
While the Red Lion program responds to customer preferences with an association of voting egg producers and packers, regulations passed through the government do not seem to have the same industry approval.
“In its own bloody wisdom,” the UK is considering a ban on beak trimming, Crawley told the group. The method is currently practiced in most poultry hatcheries, and the previously delayed ban is next expected for implementation in 2015. Sunrise Eggs currently uses infrared beak trimming, where birds are placed in a carousel structure and the upper mandible of their beaks are burned off with an infrared beam.
Although noting chicks may experience pain in the process, Crawley said beak trimming “is a small price to pay for a potentially huge payout.” In particular, the method reduces the risk of birds pecking each other, sometimes to death.
“Chicks are omnivores,” he said. “Leaving the upper mandible is a danger. It just needs to be level and it takes away that risk.”
He also said it costs up to three pence to trim the beak at the hatchery. “There’s no farmer out there that spends two to three pence they don’t have to spend.”
Despite inside criticism, Sunrise Eggs is in the midst of conducting a trial herd without trimmed beaks.
“You’ve got to do it to form an opinion,” he told the group. When the ban was first delayed in 2013, he said leaders in the Ministry of Agriculture told him the proposal would certainly come up again in two years. “He told us, ‘If you want to stop it again you have to come back with hard scientific evidence.’’
Crawley underscored the importance of being set apart in the market as appealing to consumer preferences, despite if he agrees they are legitimate. He noted that a competitor, Noble Eggs, sells a popular product deemed the “Happy Egg,” because of its extra welfare standards used in producing them. According to Crawley, the extra standards constitute placing toys and “playground” structures in the pens for laying hens.
“It’s absolutely total and utter bull,” he commented. “But it works,” he said, noting Noble achieved the ideal of successfully branding their eggs for a relatively low cost.
However, the Sunrise Eggs director opined about the whims of the public and how they drive regulatory policy in the United Kingdom, particularly regarding genetically modified (GM) foods.
“UK will have to accept GM,” he said. “We’ve got a growing population in this world and we need to feed them.”
He had a sense that the UK government wants to accept GM product, which he regards “as the way forward.”
“They see the need,” Crawley said. “But the non-GM lobby has some pretty influential people.”
The power of the UK’s animal welfare preferences is illustrated in the sow stall ban officially implemented by the EU in January 2013. The UK began a phase-in implementation of the same ban as early as 1999.
According to former pig farmer Mike Sheldon, activist groups were able to push the bill through Parliament’s voting process. Sheldon, who sold his pig operation last year, said he can now “speak honestly” about his views on the industry. Although he noted that activist groups have a significant amount of influence in the UK, he said producers are too unwilling to embrace change that may save them.
“Unless you are responding to your customers, then you’ll just be treated same as every other producer and live in an undifferentiated commodity market,” he said.
Although the number of UK pig herds dropped 40 percent after the EU’s sow stall requirement, he defended the shift to group housing and said it is just as economical as traditional sow housing in the long-term, provides a better environment for the animals and pleases consumers.
“We didn’t lose producers because group housing doesn’t work economically, he said. “It’s the cost of the transition. I don’t think you could get anyone to go back to individual housing.”
Illinois Farm Bureau member and pork producer Pat Bane said he expected to hear criticism of individual housing, but noted, “Anything works with the right management. The question is whether the cost of the transition is really worth it.”
The group also visited a “concept farm” run by a family in East Yorkshire under the contract of Sainsbury’s, the third largest supermarket chain in the UK.
“The general public in Britain is very much against having a sow in a crate,” said co-operator Vicky Morgan. “Part of our work with Sainsbury is to find an alternative to the crate.”
The farm runs several production methods considered to meet high welfare standards. The property includes a “Freedom Food” farrowing barn that includes stalls for sows and piglets that are two meters by 3.5 meters.
The concept spaces are run under the requirements of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (RSPCA) “Freedom Food” stamp.
“The general public loves it in here; it’s the way they think it should be done,” Morgan said. “They don’t understand fully all the implications.”
Those implications include a four percent higher mortality rate. She said the “Freedom” farrow barn has a 14 percent mortality rate, while the individual crate farrowing barn has a 10 percent mortality rate for weaning pigs.
However, she noted the noted that the goal is to continue improving and to bring the “concept” forward in a way that is practical while also delivering higher welfare standards.
“We’re doing things differently every batch,” she said. “Everything we’ve done has made such massive differences. We’re still on a learning curve and we’re the first people to do this.”
As noted by former farmer Sheldon and NFU representatives, the welfare standard challenges are accelerated by the EU Commissions’ enforcement standards.
According to the UK National Pig Association’s Zoe Davis, only 10 of 18 EU member states that agreed to comply with the January 2013 stall ban have done so.
“The way they bring in massive pieces of welfare legislation and then don’t actually enforce them coming through is a huge challenge for us,” she said.
Davis added that the European Commission is taking the same approach with the sow stall policy as they did with the hen battery cage policy. “The Commission hasn’t learned in this case.”
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