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View from the Hillside The Satya Interview with Wendy Valentine
In 1994, a nonprofit charity, Freedom Food, was set up by the Royal Society for
the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) to improve farm animal welfare.
Entirely independent from the food industry, Freedom Food claims to set higher
welfare standards than other UK farm assurance programs. These species-specific
standards aim to cover each stage of an animal’s life, including handling.
A Freedom Food trained assessor visits everyone who applies for membership and
completes an audit of the premises. The 2,200-plus Freedom Food members are inspected
once each year.
The Freedom Food standards are loosely based on the “Five Freedoms” defined
by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC)—freedom from hunger and thirst;
freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom from fear
and distress; and freedom to express normal behavior. These are all ideal states
the RSPCA may aim for, but factory farms can never meet. According to Viva!,
a UK animal rights organization, “the Freedom Food scheme claims to set
the highest animal welfare standards when in fact they fall well short of the
Soil Association’s standards and are usually only little better than the
legal minimum requirements. Despite the word ‘Freedom,’ the scheme
approves intensive, factory farming and does not in any way guarantee that the
animals will be [better off].”—K.A.M.
After witnessing the plight of battery hens, Wendy
Valentine founded Hillside Animal Sanctuary in 1995 to provide a home
for abused farm
animals and inform the public about the immense cruelty involved in
their food production. Today, Hillside is home to over 800 rescued
farm animals and is one of the UK’s most successful organizations
campaigning for farmed animals.
While the UK has some of the best laws with respect to farm animal welfare, Hillside’s
in-depth farm investigations show these laws are poorly enforced, with abuse
and cruelty rampant, even among “free-range” and RSPCA monitored “Freedom
Food” farms. The sanctuary tries to present the public with facts and footage
about where their food comes from, so they can choose responsibly for their next
Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Wendy Valentine about the reality of farm
animal welfare in the UK and her advice for activists here in the U.S.
Many people in the U.S. think the UK is a better place for farm animals because
you have more animal welfare standards, eliminating some of the more egregious
aspects of factory farming (i.e. banning of veal and gestation crates, and phasing
out of battery cages). What would you like to say to people here who think that
Fifty percent of our work is investigations of farms, and we’ve uncovered
so much abuse, cruelty and suffering. This country has got some of the best laws
in the world to protect animals, and yet they are so rarely enforced or upheld.
Even when we have given filmed evidence of abuse and farms breaking the law,
very rarely are they prosecuted. The farms are protected, not the animals.
Your latest newsletter covers a Hillside investigation of free-range eggs. Can
you tell us about this?
We had a tip about a free-range unit. They had a shed with about 3,000 chickens
in it. They had three little windows open at the top, so the hens couldn’t
get in or out freely. There were probably about a hundred hens roaming around
outside, but the rest were stuck inside the shed. Inside, the stench was so bad,
it was hard to stay and film. A lot of the chickens had balls of excrement on
their feet, and weren’t able to get out and scratch around. The eggs were
being sold as free-range, but they obviously weren’t.
As many consumers, wanting to be more conscientious in their food choices
to free-range and ‘humanely raised’ animal products, what are your
We don’t promote eating meat of any kind. [These animals] still have to
go to slaughter. The other thing is we’ve had several cases where people
are selling battery eggs as free-range, and the public just wouldn’t know
the difference. I often wonder how much of the meat sold is actually this organic, “free-range” meat.
When people buy this meat, they are paying a high price for something that may
not be reared as they say.
People have asked us where they can buy products where animals have had a good
life, and we just say in our opinion, you cannot produce 100 percent cruelty-free
animal products. The animals have suffered at some point.
I was recently looking at this [farm] near the sanctuary and found a pile of
about 200 lambs’ tails! These lambs, just a few months old, have had their
tails cut without any anesthetic. There are so many things in the background,
so many issues and angles people wouldn’t ever think about or consider.
In the U.S. there are various certification programs for “humanely raised” products.
Can you tell us about efforts in the UK and how legitimate they are?
Over here we have the RSPCA “Freedom Food” farm animal welfare assurance
scheme. They have several million animals under this logo. We have looked at
10 of their farms and the conditions were so bad in two of them that the RSPCA
had to initiate a prosecution of two farms they were supposed to be monitoring!
Needless to say, the RSPCA doesn’t want a farm they were monitoring to
be found guilty.
People pay a high premium for these Freedom Food products. We’ve got so
much footage on these farms, and [suspect] the money doesn’t go to the
animals, it just goes into the farmers’ pockets. I think there is a handful
of organic people doing it the best they can with the least cruelty, but I wouldn’t
promote those at all. I know too much about what goes on to promote any of it
Have you found higher animal welfare standards and greater public concern about
farm animal welfare has had any effect on meat consumption in the UK?
There are certainly more vegetarians around. I think people are thinking about
I actually worked for a couple of years in California. I felt with Americans,
when it came to animal welfare, it’s not that they don’t care, it’s
just not really put into their minds as much as here. But I felt they were open
to take in the information.
What advice do you have for U.S. animal activists who are working on farm animal
In England we have three major campaigns for farm animals—Viva!, Compassion
in World Farming and Hillside. We all do things slightly different. We try to
get into people’s minds in a way that isn’t preaching. At Hillside,
we don’t say, “don’t eat meat.” We just present them
with all the facts, make them realize how their meat is produced, and [it’s
up to them] if they want any part of the suffering.
We try to reach the everyday people and have distributed thousands of DVDs. We
let the public know that they can make a difference. It’s the demand that
causes the supply. And from the letters we get, a lot of people do change from
meat-eaters to vegetarian and from vegetarian to being vegan. Things are changing
but obviously not fast enough.