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September 2006
A View from the Hillside
The Satya Interview with Wendy Valentine

 

Freedom Food

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 meal.

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 way?
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 turn to free-range and ‘humanely raised’ animal products, what are your concerns?
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 really.

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 it more.

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 issues?
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.

To learn more visit www.hillside.org.uk.


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