What is good animal welfare?

A new animal welfare label is meant to get Danes to think more about the meat they buy. But critics are worried the label doesn't significantly improve animal welfare, potentially misleading consumers

Consumers have become increasingly concerned about animal welfare in recent years, especially in regards to pigs. One of Denmark’s most important exports, and a staple on Danish dinner plates, pigs are often kept in poor conditions by farmers under pressure to keep costs as low as possible.

In response, a new government-sanctioned animal welfare label is being introduced to get Danes to choose higher standards of animal welfare. The three-tiered Better Animal Welfare (Bedre Dyrevelfærd) label gives one ‘heart’ for animals that are given greater care than the legal minimum requirements and three when an “extraordinary” effort is made. The label will at first only be applied to pork products, but will eventually cover a range of agricultural animals.

“We know that a lot of Danes want to pay a little extra to support better animal welfare,” environment and agriculture minister Esben Lunde Larsen said after the launch of the label.

“The animal welfare label will make it more attractive for farmers to invest in animal welfare improvements on their farms, while retailers get the opportunity to address consumer demands for better animal welfare.”

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The Bedre Dyrevelfærd animal-welfare label imposes strict requirements on pig farmers In order for pork to be labelled with the animal-welfare label, the conditions for pigs on farms must live up to a number of basic requirements. These requirements are considerably stricter than the current statutory requirements in Denmark and in the EU, and thereby stricter than the requirements in standard or conventional production. The label is a voluntary scheme with three levels ranging from one to three hearts. The more hearts the better the welfare. One heart indicates that the basic requirements of the label have been met. Two and three hearts indicate that supplementary requirements for more space and outdoor area have been met. Source: The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration.

Confusing consumers
While the label will improve transparency by giving consumers a greater insight into the welfare of conventionally produced animals, it has its critics, including the Danish Animal Welfare Society (Dyrenes Beskyttelse), which has its own animal welfare label – Recommended By (Anbefalet Af).

Director Britta Riis is concerned that the label rewards animal products that only marginally improve on minimum legal welfare standards – which are especially low in the pork industry.

“With this new label the government risks approving bad pig farming,” she says, adding that consumers might think the animals live much better lives than they really do.

“The label simply does too little, when it could do much more,” she says.

The introduction of a new label might also confuse consumers further, argues the Danish Consumer Council (Forbrugerrådet Tænk).

“We don’t think there is a need for another label that is less restrictive than the already existing ones,” Tænk’s senior advisor of food policy, Camilla Udsen, told Altinget.

The agriculture minister dismissed the criticism that the new government plan is unambitious, but he does admit that it’s important not to have too many different labels.

“We must be careful not to create a ‘label jungle’, which is why I’m very pleased that so many retailers and producers support the government authorised brand,” Larsen told Jyllands-Posten.

READ MORE: Sacrificing the environment for profit

Pig summit meeting
The new label was developed following the 2014 Pig Summit. Then-agriculture minister Dan Jørgensen invited representatives from the retail and agriculture sector, along with welfare organisations, to discuss ways to improve conditions for pigs. One of the nine proposals resulting from the conference was to give consumers a wider selection of high  animal welfare products to choose from. After inviting a range of stakeholders to discuss how to accomplish this goal, the government ultimately launched the Bedre Dyrevelfærd label.

Among the stakeholders is Dansk Supermarked Group, which owns some of Denmark’s largest supermarket chains, including Føtex, Netto and Bilka, which  have a total of 1,467 stores across Denmark.

Mads Grand, head of communications for Dansk Supermarked Group, is disappointed that the label isn’t supported by the entire supermarket sector. Coop – their main competitor – chose not to support the label, arguing the bar was set too low.

“We could have developed a common label. Instead, today we see companies developing individual labels, which can end up confusing consumers,” he says, adding that he is still confident that the label will prove to be a success when it launches in early 2017.

“Two thirds of Danish retailers support the label. I think as soon as it gets a proper foothold in the market, and when it will expand to include more animals, the last third will join too.”

Democratisation of animal welfare
According to Grand, consumers are increasingly demanding meat produced with higher levels of animal welfare. High welfare animal products remain prohibitively expensive for most consumers, however.

“Only a minority of consumers will automatically go from paying 69 kroner for a conventional pork fillet to 169 kroner for an organic one.”

Bedre Dyrevelfærd’s tiered system means that consumers can invest in small, but noticeable, improvements to animal welfare, without it costing them much more than they are used to.

“We want to democratise animal welfare and make it available to everyone,” says Grand.

“We think that milder changes, but on a larger scale, will affect many more animals.”

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Market share not ethics
Animal ethicist, Professor Peter Sandøe from the University of Copenhagen, supports the new labeling system, which he thinks has the potential to bring about a major increase in welfare for conventionally-farmed animals.

“Even the label with one heart does a great deal to improve the standards of conventional pig production,” he says.

Danes are increasingly unhappy with the treatment of pigs in conventional farms. Photo: Farm watch / flickr

The label is important because of its focus on conventional farming, he argues, as neither outdoor nor organic production is likely to ever become the main method of pig production in Denmark.

“When only focusing on improving animal welfare in organic or outdoor production, you disregard the vast majority of pigs in Danish production who live indoors. This means that their life will continue to be ridden with severe welfare problems unless initiatives such as the government’s new label are integrated, which lifts the bottom significantly and improves animal welfare for the largest group pigs,” he says.

He points out that two of the worst practices in pig production – fixating sows while they give birth and lactate, and keeping growing pigs without access to straw – are both banned under the government’s label, among other things.

Sandøe says he was disappointed by the debate that followed the launch of the new label, especially the position of Dyrenes Beskyttelse.

“The real motive behind the negative debate does not seem to be a concern for animal welfare but seems to be about power and market share,” Sandøe argues.

“Dyrenes Beskyttelse are, as far as I can see, trying to protect the market share of products with their label, rather than fighting for better welfare for the larger group of pigs. It’s a real shame.”

Riis from Dyrenes Beskyttelse dismisses the accusation, however.

“We are fighting for better animal welfare, and we think the level could and should be higher than the government’s suggested lowest level. The bar has simply been sat too low,” she says.

“We do appreciate the competition, because that means that welfare has been improved for more animals as more products are included. It’s just aggravating when more could have been done.”

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Too few producers
Dyrenes Beskyttelse commissioned a report by Analyse Danmark, which found that more than two thirds of Danes want their supermarket to supply more high animal welfare products. This year, the organisation started a separate project with Dansk Supermarked Group to increase the sales of high welfare animal products in its supermarkets.

“The sale of free range and organic meat, milk, egg and dairy products is growing,” Jeppe Dahl Jeppesen, head of Fresh Food at Dansk Supermarked Group said in a press release. “Together with Dyrenes Beskyttelse, we have set a goal to increase the sales of these products by 500 million kroner by 2020, compared to 2015.”

The Increased demand for these products is actually outstripping supply, so Dyrenes Beskyttelse has teamed up with agriculture lobby group the Agriculture and Food Council (Landbrug og Fødevarer) and Dansk Supermarked Group to encourage and help more producers adapt their products to meet the demand.

The number of higher welfare animal products on the market is steadily growing, according to a study by the Environment and Food Ministry. This is primarily due to an increasing number of farmers who are transferring from conventional to organic production.

Dyrenes Beskyttelse says they are frequently contacted by producers who are interested in qualifying for their welfare label.

“The problem today is that there is a shortage of products, which means that Danish farmers have to conform and change production in order to match demand,” Riis says, adding that producers are both willing and confident to make the transition due to the high demand.

“Organic farmers are actually making money today, whereas conventional farmers are pressed financially. Both at home and abroad, the demand has changed towards more animal welfare.” M


By Sophie Stenner Frahm

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