RSPCA Assured has been helping improve the lives of farm animals for more than a quarter of a century. In that time, we’ve worked with 1000s of UK farmers and many of the UK’s biggest food retailers. Here we look back over some of the most significant events and developments of the first twenty-five years.
Setting the scene
Sometime in the early 90s, the RSPCA’s Head of Farm Animals and Deputy Chief Vet, Alastair Mews and external technical advisor Dr Mike Baxter began talking about the possibility of an ethical food label. The idea would be to enable consumers to identify animal products that had come from higher welfare farms. It would be an opportunity for customer demand to drive progress in welfare through direct support for farmers who were going the extra mile for animal welfare.
Over the next few years, the RSPCA conducted surveys to gauge public opinion and to see whether higher welfare products were viable.
At the same time, they spoke to farmers and food retailers across the UK to see if there was sufficient interest in an assurance scheme.
Should the RSPCA get involved in animal agriculture?
This was a difficult question for the Society to answer. Should an animal welfare charity be working with the meat industry to raise standards?
Eventually, it was agreed that it would be beneficial to the animals already being farmed to work with the industry on improving welfare standards. Plans were then put in place to develop both species-specific welfare standards and an approach to ensuring they were implemented and enforced in practice.
The RSPCA welfare standards
The RSPCA’s welfare standards are detailed and comprehensive and cover all aspects of an animal’s life. They are constantly evolving, informed by the latest scientific research, veterinary advice and practical experience. Find out more about how the RSPCA’s standards are developed and progressed.
Freedom Food was set up as a separate limited company with charitable status that would be owned by the RSPCA. The name, Freedom Food came from the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s (FAWC) Five Freedoms which formed the basis of our welfare standards and continue to do so to this day (though to a lesser extent now).
The launch of Freedom Food marked an important milestone since it was the first assurance scheme to be focused on farm animal welfare. It was also the first to require the implementation of welfare standards developed by the RSPCA, introducing requirements such as farm-specific veterinary health and welfare plans, then seen as revolutionary but now a mainstream expectation within the farming industry.
At this point, there were no formulated standards for assessing farms and the only species we had on the scheme were laying hens and pigs. Assessments were carried out by our solitary assessor who would go and have a look to make sure everything on the farm was looking OK.
It seems strange now, to look back and think that RSPCA Assured was initially run by just four people: an assessor, a chief executive, a manager and a secretary.
Luckily, the scheme was quickly adopted by big retailers like Co-op and Tesco and producers like Bowes of Norfolk (pigs) and Deans Foods (eggs). These were our first formal engagements with the farming industry and they got the scheme off to a great start.
Freedom Food was launched with RSPCA standards for pigs and for laying hens.
Welfare standards were developed for sheep and dairy cows. These now included provisions for environmental enrichment objects such as brushes, so the cows can groom and scratch themselves.
Welfare standards were developed for farmed ducks requiring the provision of bathing water.
In just ten years, we had grown to include 1,700 members. We also had seven full-time RSPCA Assured assessors and one contract assessor.
Another important milestone, the provision of natural light became mandatory for meat chickens under the RSPCA standards along with the requirement for members to only use higher welfare slower-growing broilers on RSPCA Assured farms.
Welfare Outcome Assessments, starting with laying hens, were introduced. This meant the RSPCA Assured assessors began to record or collect information on key welfare outcomes such as the rate of feather loss in hens, and tail biting in pigs.
It become a mandatory requirement under the RSPCA welfare standards for CCTV to be used in abattoirs to monitor welfare during the slaughter process for all RSPCA Assured members.
The organisers of the London 2012 Olympics pledged to use a 20 per cent RSPCA Assured chicken and pork during the games.
Sainsbury’s began to offer 100% RSPCA Assured cage-free eggs across their own label products.
After twenty years, it was time for a new look and a new name. While we had gained significant recognition as Freedom Food, research showed that the RSPCA name was much better known to the public. So ‘RSPCA Assured’ became the new company name and logo
Sainsbury’s began offering all RSPCA Assured turkey and chicken across their own range of products.
RSPCA welfare standards were developed for rainbow trout. Much like salmon, these included provisions for more space and regulations around how the animals were to be handled.
Farrowing crates were banned under the RSPCA standards for pigs, so were prohibited on all RSPCA Assured farms.
The advisory groups of external consultants which provided advice and information to help the RSPCA develop its welfare standards were refreshed and renamed as Standards Technical Advisory Groups (or STAGS for short).
Co-op began sourcing 100% of its own brand pork products from RSPCA Assured providers.
Joining the Reducetarian movement, RSPCA Assured launched its Eat Less Eat Better campaign. We wanted to encourage people to eat less meat, fish, eggs and dairy from low welfare farms and to always buy higher welfare products.