RSPCA calls for higher animal welfare standards for public sector food

The RSPCA is calling for UK Government Buying Standards to be overhauled to ensure food served in hospitals and schools is produced to high welfare standards.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals warns post-Brexit trade deals may make it easier for imported food which is produced to lower standards than the UK to make its way into the country.

It states the Government Buying Standards benchmark for animal welfare is currently set “very low”, and in sectors such as eggs, meat and chicken, welfare standards are set no higher than the baseline.

It’s not the first time there have been calls for public bodies to support local producers. An NFU Scotland campaign in 2019 called on Holyrood to create a ‘Good Food Nation’ by guaranteeing that every school meal, where possible, is made entirely from Scottish produce. And just last year, a Northern Ireland council became the first to pass a motion for local food procurement to become a council policy.

RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “An overhaul of Government Buying Standards is long overdue as the animal welfare rules are baseline at best.

“It’s unacceptable that school children or sick hospital patients may be served food that has been produced to low welfare standards – what’s worse, is they invariably have no choice in the matter.

“The government made a promise to the public to maintain or improve the UK’s high animal welfare standards after Brexit. The government should ensure that its buying standards, which even allow products to be imported that are below British minimum welfare standards, should be improved, audited and this crucial loophole closed.

“Otherwise UK producers that are producing to higher standards could be undercut, potentially putting them out of business and leading to a race to the bottom.”

Government Buying Standards for Food

Although now in existence for more than six years, the Government Buying Standards rules have not kept pace with the changing consumer demand.

For example, the standards set for eggs and egg products are so low that the requirement is simply not to use conventional battery cages, which have been illegal in the UK (and the EU) since 2012.

In sectors such as eggs, meat and chicken, the standard is set no higher than baseline. But with no government auditing since the standards were introduced in 2014, the RSPCA warns there is no way of knowing whether even those baseline standards are being met.

For example, an Efra report published earlier this year estimated just 54% of hospital food meets Government Buying Standards. In addition, it claimed buyers are allowed to ‘opt-out’ of the GBS and buy below baseline standards if money is tight.

“Through its procurement policies, the government has a pivotal role to play to show that it really is serious about increasing animal welfare standards and due to its high procurement spend, it is in a great position to drive the marketplace forward,” Sherwood said.

“This is an opportunity for the Government to lead by example and set the bar when it comes to sourcing high-quality, higher welfare food for public institutions.

“An overhaul of these standards is long overdue and will ensure the Government keeps its promises to the public about maintaining and improving the UK’s animal welfare standards, in line with what consumers want.”