Voluntary animal welfare schemes in the EU do exist, but there is no harmonised scheme and there is confusion amongst consumers about the standards they represent. Schemes in use include organic labelling, schemes run by various animal charities like the RSCA’s Freedom Food, retailer’s schemes, and other marks like the Red Tractor, which may only refer to minimum legal requirements.
The Commission has now outlined a series of options to help coordinate labelling, and is throwing the matter open to discussion between the European Council, Parliament, and other institutions. It is also suggesting that a European Network for Reference Centres be established.
EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou drew attention to the benefits for the food industry, saying better labelling would be a “win-win” for consumers and producers.
“Producers applying higher standards can market their products more effectively,” she said.
After conducting a feasibility study and consulting with stakeholders, the Commission has come up with several options, all of them voluntary.
It suggests the establishments of requirements for voluntary labelling claims; establishing a voluntary Community Animal Welfare Label open to all who met criteria; and drafting guidelines for animal welfare and quality schemes.
However for animal welfare campaigners, the options on the table do not go far enough. Compassion in World Farming, a UK-based NGO, says if labelling is voluntary, only products farmed with high animal welfare standards will be identified.
Mandatory labelling, on the other hand, would identify meat, poultry and dairy produce that are reared intensively.
Compassion’s director of programmes John Callaghan pointed out that a mandatory system for eggs already exists, and is working well. Eggs must be marked from 0 to 3, with 0 denoting organic, 1 free ranged, 2 barn, and 3 caged.
“The remarkable rise in sales of non-cage eggs in many countries since the introduction of mandatory labelling of egg packs suggests that consumers are reacting positively to the availability of clear information as to farming method,” he said.
Compassion suggests the use of four terms for meat, poultry and dairy: indoor intensive, indoor extensive, free range and premium free range.
European Network for Reference Centres
The Commission has assessed the feasibility of establishing a European Network for Reference Centres for the protection and welfare of animals, as stakeholders have expressed concern about coordination and use of existing scientific evidence.
The idea is for the centres to provide technical support for developing and implementing animal welfare policies, including certification and labelling.
The Commission’s preferred approach would to designate an existing centre of excellence on animal welfare to cooperate with a network of relevant, Community-recognised research institutes across member states.
Such an approach has already been used in the animal health field.