The Environment Minister Says The UK Has ‘Highest Animal Welfare Standards’ – What Are Those Standards?

Brits often view UK farming through rose tinted glasses, but how do we actually treat animals?


13 Minutes Read

A hen in a 'Happy Egg' free-range farm in the UK What really happens to animals on UK farms? - Media Credit: PETA UK

*Warning: this article contains images that some might find distressing*

Earlier this week, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, the UK’s Secretary of State for the Environment Thérèse Coffey became the latest politician to publicly praise the country’s “animal welfare standards.”

In a bizarre address that attacked “green zealots” and their “fake meat” (which she said was “for astronauts”), Coffey put forward the sort of romanticized view of British farming that’s become common belief among the general public. 

“Our farmers produce the best food in the world to the highest animal welfare standards,” she said. “But there’s some green zealots who think our farmers should stop rearing livestock and instead we should eat fake meat.” Adding that she’s “absolutely not going to tell anyone that they should not eat meat,” Coffey went on to state: “When people think of a meat feast, I want them to be thinking about great Welsh lamb, our Aberdeen Angus beef, our Saddleback pork, not some pizza topping.”

There’s lots to be said about the hugely concerning issue that the environment minister is so apparently enamored with animal agriculture, possibly the most environmentally destructive industry there is. But of equal concern is the fact that she’s perpetuating this notion of a high welfare animal food system, a system that doesn’t exist. 

The UK and ‘animal welfare’

Coffey’s words are nothing new. The idea that the UK has high animal welfare standards has been circulating for years, propped up by successive governments. 

It gained traction in 2020 when the Boris Johnson administration launched the “Action Plan For Animal Welfare.” This contained a number of proposals to improve the lives of animals both in the UK and abroad (many of which have since been shelved or seemingly forgotten). When unveiling the plan, ministers repeatedly praised the UK’s farms, with the plan itself proclaiming to build on the country’s “world-leading” welfare standards. 

No such thing as an ethical farm

The first thing to state is that the idea of a “high welfare” farm is a contradiction in terms. Animals are sentient beings who should live life free from all human interference, so farming them for food can never be “ethical.” For many vegans, therefore, there is no such thing as a good animal farm.

But those who do eat meat are being fed an inaccurate idea of where their food comes from. This rhetoric of “British animal welfare” from politicians has led many people to hold the exceptionalist belief that animals are uniquely happy on our farms, and that agriculture here is idyllic, far removed from any unethical practices that may happen abroad. 

And it’s not just the government that’s responsible. Constant media endorsements of the way UK farmers treat animals puts forward the idea that British meat is inextricably ethical. Adverts for supermarkets, restaurants, and even McDonald’s repeatedly imply their “British meat” is humanely sourced. Growing up, many of us read storybooks about rosy-cheeked farmers raising a handful of smiling animals on their family farm, and these images stay with us, guiding our food choices into adulthood. 

UK animal welfare laws

While it’s true that the UK does have more so-called “animal welfare” laws than many other countries in the world, that doesn’t mean the country has anything resembling good animal welfare. The bar for “welfare” legislation is exceptionally low, and these laws have time and time again proven themselves to be minimal and ineffective.

In England and Wales, farmed animals are covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This supposedly ensures animals aren’t exposed to any unnecessary suffering and should be protected from pain and disease, among other things. Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar laws. Despite the fact that animals have theoretical protection, the law still allows animals to be caged, mutilated, and killed in horrific ways. 

UK factory farming

Pigs in an indoor factory farm in the UK
Viva! The vast majority of UK farmed animals are raised indoors in factory farms

While the phrase “British farming” may conjure up images of cows in large fields, a rapidly growing number of animals are being raised on factory farms. It’s thought that 85 percent of the 1.2 billion animals killed in the country are raised intensively, with most never seeing the light of day. The number of US-style “mega farms” are also increasing across the UK. Some of these hold more than a million animals at a time. According to a 2022 Guardian report, there are over 1,000 of these dotted around the country. 

The majority of the pork and chicken that the UK eats comes from factory farmed animals. Gestation crates for pigs (cages they’re kept in while pregnant) have been banned since the 1990s, and the ban is one tangible animal welfare law the UK does have. But female pigs used for breeding will still be kept in metal cages called “farrowing crates” for six weeks after giving birth. These don’t allow her any room to turn around, and barely space to move at all. Her piglets will suckle from an area next to her known as “the creep,” but she will not be able to access her young. Farmers will routinely kill sick piglets with a process called “thumping,” which entails bashing their heads against the wall or floor. The National Pig Association, says this is an “effective and appropriate way of humanely killing a piglet.” Piglets will also have their teeth clipped and tails cut off to stop them fighting each other due to stress. This is typically done without pain relief. 

Broiler chickens (those used for meat) will be raised in huge cramped barns, and they will often have space no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper. Most chickens in the UK have been selectively bred to grow unnaturally fast so they reach slaughter weight in six weeks. This takes a huge toll on their bodies, and they’ll often suffer from immobility, as well as heart and respiratory problems. If a human baby grew at the rate modern UK broiler chickens did, the baby would be the size of an adult tiger at eight weeks. 

A UK broiler chicken factory farm
Viva! Chickens will be kept in vast barns with thousands others

Traditional Battery cages for egg-laying hens were banned in the UK in 2012, meaning hens are not legally permitted to be kept in them. Battery cages were just replaced, however, with another type called “enriched” cages, and these house multiple hens at a time. Enriched cages have low level perches, scratch mats, and nest boxes, but the difference between these and the old cages is negligable. In traditional battery cages, hens had space the size of an A4 sheet of paper. In enriched cages, they have space the size of an A4 sheet of paper plus postcard. 

Cows are also being factory farmed at an accelerating rate in the UK. An investigation from vegan charity Viva! earlier this year warned of intensive farming’s “silent takeover” in the country’s dairy industry. It’s thought that around 20 percent of dairy farms in the UK now operate “zero-grazing” systems, where cows are never allowed outside. These farms, according to The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), leave cows at increased risk of “hoof problems, teat tramp, mastitis, metritis, dystocia, ketosis, retained placenta, and some bacterial infections.” 

Cows in a UK factory farm
Viva! A growing number of cows are being raised on factory farms

Are smaller farms much better?

It’s undeniable, however, that – unlike in some countries – many UK animals are still raised on smaller farms. The majority of the UK’s cows and sheep aren’t factory farmed, for example, and they’re still allowed outside for some of their lives. The “Welsh lamb” and “Aberdeen Angus beef” mentioned in Coffey’s speech likely referred to the minority of animals that are raised on such farms.

Many people believe that factory farms versus smaller farms is a case of good versus bad. While there is a distinction between the types of farms, this is nowhere near as significant as we’ve been led to believe. Animals can suffer hugely on smaller farms, and mutilations, abuse, and disease is often rife. 

The majority of dairy cows are raised on smaller farms, but dairy is arguably the cruelest animal industry of all. Growing up, many of us are told that cows produce milk because they’re cows, but they actually produce it because they’re mothers. They will give birth around once a year (after being impregnated via artificial insemination) and each time have the trauma of having their baby taken from them. Cows form powerful bonds with their young, just like humans, and they will often bellow for them for days after they’re gone. Calves will either be killed, sold to the veal industry, or raised for dairy themselves. Dairy cows have been selectively bred to produce far more milk than they naturally would, and they often suffer from an udder infection called mastitis as a result. Around a third of dairy cows also suffer from lameness (reduced ability to use limbs), with the condition previously being described by charity Animal Equality as “one of the most pressing and common welfare issues that faces cows on dairy farms.” When their bodies give up and stop producing milk (usually after around five years), dairy cows will be killed. 

Many people love seeing lambs skipping in green fields, but turn a blind eye to the fact that they’re killed, butchered, and eaten for Sunday lunches all over the country. Lambs are mutilated soon after birth, being castrated and having their tails docked without pain relief. Castration is thought to make them more docile, and some people say it improves the taste of the meat. Tail docking is the act of removing some of their tail with a knife or hot iron. It’s done to prevent “fly strike” (when flies lay eggs in their rear ends). 

Free range eggs are often considered an ethical food, but the vast majority of hens in these systems spend much of their lives in huge cramped barns with thousands others. While they do theoretically have daytime outdoor access, strict pecking orders in the flock, along with injuries, mean that many birds will never make it outside. PETA UK conducted an investigation into a farm supplying the famous British brand “Happy Eggs,” which markets itself as high welfare. It found that the hens were cramped together in barns, and had no opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours like perching, roosting, and even extending their wings.

Chickens in a "free-range" farms. The photo shows hens in a cramped barn surrounded by many others
PETA UK Chickens in a “free range” farm. This photo was taken at a farm supplying the brand “Happy Eggs”

Fish farming

When politicians and the public refer to “animal welfare,” they likely have land animals in mind, but fishes* are one of the most farmed animals in the UK. 

Fish farming is a rapidly growing industry in the country, and around 77 million fishes are raised and killed each year. Scotland is the third largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the world, and salmon are the second most intensively farmed animals in the country (after chickens). 

While fishes are in theory covered by the Animal Welfare Act, they suffer hugely on farms. They will often be kept in overcrowded circular tanks and be forced to swim endlessly in circles for most of their lives. Disease is rife on fish farms, and enclosures easily become infected with parasites that eat them alive. A 2020 Compassion In World Farming investigation into 22 Scottish salmon farms found that parasites were eating into their skin. Chunks of flesh were missing from the fishes’ bodies, and seaweed was growing out of their open wounds. Fishes were struggling to get enough oxygen because the water was so filthy, and around a quarter of the them died before reaching slaughter age. A recent Viva! investigation also found that farmed salmon in Scotland were “plagued” with sea lice and jelly fish during the 2023 summer heatwave.

A UK salmon farm
Viva! Fishes suffer hugely on farms

Illegal animal abuse is rife

Investigation after investigation has shown that even the UK’s minimum legal protections for animals are often not enforced. Animals are regularly seen with horrific injuries on farms, and workers often filmed abusing them. While investigating 19 chicken farms, for example, Animal Equality found that workers were deliberately stepping on and kicking birds, and many chickens were too sick to move to access water. A separate investigation into an Aberdeenshire pig farm found that mother pigs used for breeding were suffering from prolapses and torn vulvas. 

But prosecutions for animal welfare breaches are exceptionally rare in the UK, with most perpetrators not facing criminal charges for abuse. As Justin Kersall from Viva! previously put it:  “[The authorities] don’t act because it would open up almost every farm in Britain to prosecution.”

A study published in November 2022 found that less than three percent of farms were being inspected every year. Researchers also found that less than 0.33 percent of complaints that did get made on these farms led to animal cruelty prosecutions. 

How are animals killed?

While the UK will claim that animals are killed “humanely,” numerous investigations have shown that nothing humane happens at a slaughterhouse. The vast majority of pigs will be gassed to death with a high concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2). This forms an acid on any wet surface it touches, including their eyes, lungs, and throats. Experts have stated that CO2 gassing causes them to “burn from the inside out.” Pigs who aren’t gassed will be stunned and have their throats cut, but improper stunning is rife within the industry. This means that they may be still alive when they are bleeding out and plunged into scalding tanks filled with very hot water. 

Chickens will also be gassed, usually with a combination of CO2, argon, and nitrogen. The animals have been observed flapping their wings in panic as they suffer to death. Alternatively, they, like pigs, may be stunned and have their throats cut. They, again, may also survive this process until the scalding tank. 

Cows will be stunned with a captive bolt pistol before having their throats cut, but this – again – is regularly done improperly. They may also be conscious when bleeding out. Lambs will be shackled upside down at the slaughterhouse, before being stunned and having their throats cut. 

Fishes have minimal legal protection when it comes to slaughter, and a variety of methods are used to kill them. Some will be left to suffocate on ice or in the air, while many more may be “processed” while still alive. 

There’s nothing humane about British farming

By portraying the UK farming system as “high welfare,” the government is putting forward an entirely inaccurate idea of the reality of our food. Many people in the UK consider themselves animal lovers, and the idea that our meat, dairy, and eggs is ethical enables millions of people to contribute to animal cruelty guilt-free. People want to believe their meat is ethical, and this falsehood is being propped up by politicians wanting to appease them.

But animal welfare laws exist mostly for our conscience, rather than animals, who are being quietly and systematically tortured. While politicians and the public are marveling at the country’s “welfare,” millions upon millions of animals are suffering in tanks, cages, and unmarked sheds every day. 

*While the English language refers to multiple fish as “fish,” we choose to use “fishes” to emphasize their individuality.

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