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Animal rights and the food industry

Animals are bred, raised and killed for us to eat meat and dairy.

In this article, we discuss the key animal rights issues in the food industry. We outline animal welfare violations and ask what companies are doing to address them, and we discuss steps that consumers can take for change.

We often think of the UK as having high standards when it comes to animal welfare, but is this really true?

One in five dairy cows have no access to pasture. Cage eggs are still used in many food products. Around 50% of sows are kept in farrowing crates for several weeks during the time they give birth.

These conditions all point to the lack of bodily autonomy for UK farm animals. And with the growth of industrial, factory animal farms, the situation is likely to be getting worse.

Animal rights and animal welfare issues in the food industry

For many, animal rights and the rearing of animals for food are incompatible. What stops animals having a right to life like humans? What makes our lives more important than theirs? Breeding, keeping and killing certain animals for food means that sentient beings are being exploited and traded as a commodity.

For others, how the animals spend their lives is most important. Peter Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming says that the system in the UK is deeply flawed and often “way short of what’s needed to ensure animals have lives worth living”.

Here, we run through some of the key welfare issues seen on some UK farms and what they mean in terms of animal rights.

1. Farm animals kept in overcrowded conditions

Many animals are kept in severely overcrowded conditions.

Over 60% of the world’s eggs, that is from nearly 4.5 billion hens, are still produced in industrialised systems, mainly battery cages. Whilst progress may have been made in the UK, there are still animal rights and welfare issues associated with eggs, even ‘good’ ones. The drawing below shows the relative space an indoor hen has:

Infographic showing relative space for hens whether battery, caged, free range or organic
Copyright ECRA & Moonloft

There is a common misconception that free range eggs involve hens roaming outside, happy and free. Welfare standards can vary wildly between different free range producers, from small-scale egg farmers with hens in a field to industrial producers who adhere to the minimum standards.

Minimum free range standards still allow hens to be kept in vast, multi-tiered sheds with 16,000 or more other birds, and rarely see daylight. Under EU legislation, nine ‘free-range’ birds can occupy one square metre of floor space. That might be about twice as much room as a battery hen, but it’s still like 14 human adults living in a one-room flat.

While hens have to be given some kind of daytime access to the outside, with such confined spaces only very few birds will ever actually make it out the door. Even once there, the outside may not be the rural idyll you imagine. It can be a barren space with little or no vegetation.

The same story is seen for many other animals in the farming system. Animal Aid says, “the majority of farmed pigs are often forced to live standing and lying in their own waste.” Sows are often also kept in ‘farrowing crates’ for about a month around the time they give birth – metal and concrete cages just a few inches larger than the sow. 23% of farms also keep some or all dairy cows inside year-round, up from 16% in 2014. Factory farmed fish can also be kept in densely packed nets, where some end up riddled with lice and treated with strong chemicals.

These animals can be in dirty conditions, without adequate straw, and have nothing to interact or play with. Hens kept inside are given ‘enrichments’ (like pecking blocks and plastic toys) to help them express their natural behaviours – which speaks volumes about the unnatural conditions they are kept in.

2. Farm animals mutilated

Many animals are mutilated in order to ‘solve’ problems created by the industry.

Piglets can be taken from their mother at a young age and put into shared pens. Desperately trying to find their mother’s milk, they can try and suckle the other piglets or bite their tails. Some farms will amputate part of the piglets’ tails and clip their pointed side-teeth to avoid the problem. The amputation can be painful and result in infections. It’s banned in the UK, but campaigners say it is still “commonplace”.

Likewise, hens, denied outside space for foraging, sometimes peck one another’s feathers. To avoid this, chicks have their beaks trimmed without anaesthetic. In 2011, the UK banned one of the worst forms of beak trimming, with a blade, although it is still legal in the US.

Similarly, virtually all dairy cows are born with horns, which are removed through a painful procedure so that they are less likely to cause injury and require less space in pens and feeders.

Lambs also face mutilations. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) states that castration and tail docking of lambs “should not be undertaken without strong justification", however, the practices are still common. Lambs' tails are docked with a knife, hot iron or tight ring. Male lambs are castrated using a tight ring, clamp or surgery, usually without anaesthetic.

3. Farm animals are continually impregnated and separated from their offspring

For both milk and meat production, female animals are impregnated usually at a much much faster rate than is natural for their bodies.

Animals of any species can only supply continuous milk if they are continually pregnant. On a dairy farm, a cow is restrained, and a farmer puts their arm into the cow and injects a gun full of semen into her cervix. A few months after giving birth she will be impregnated again, then be milked throughout most of her pregnancy. A few months after the next birth she will be impregnated again, and so on.

Shortly after birth, dairy calves are separated from their mothers so that the milk the calf would otherwise consume can be sold. Male calves usually end up as meat. Female calves usually become dairy cows like their mother. The process causes huge distress to both calf and mother.

Pigs face a similar cycle. Pigs would naturally feed their piglets for two or three months before weaning. Yet, piglets are usually taken away from their mother at three to four weeks so she can be impregnated again. This separation causes stress to both of them, but it also makes the mother come into season quicker than she otherwise naturally would, so she can have another litter again.

For animal rights activists, this use of animal’s reproductive systems epitomises the way in which we exploit animals’ bodies.

Hens densely packed indoors

4. Farm animals forced to overproduce

Dairy cows are bred to produce six to ten times as much milk as a cow typically would for their calf. They are milked by machines multiple times per day and regularly suffer from mastitis (inflammation of breast tissue causing swelling, hotness and pain).

Likewise, farmed hens have been bred to lay 250-300 eggs a year – compared to just 10-15 eggs for their wild ancestors. This puts enormous strain on their bodies.

For many vegans, the very concept of an ethical egg is impossible. Animal rights group Peta argues that females’ rights over their own reproductive systems should be respected, no matter the species, asking: “can you call yourself a feminist if you eat eggs?”

5. Farm animals transported in scary conditions

Animals can be transported a long way, in scary conditions, particularly before slaughter.

Historically, they have been transported from the UK across continental Europe and even to countries like Israel. According to Compassion in World Farming,

“In the mid-1990s, over 2.5 million animals were transported live from the UK to be fattened and slaughtered in Europe. [...] this number has dropped significantly. However, thousands of calves and sheep are still exported by sea and road from the UK as far as Spain and Italy.”

Conditions can be overcrowded and scary. Pigs can die during transit due to the stress caused by overcrowding, long journeys, rough handling and extreme temperatures.

In August 2021, the UK announced that it was cracking down on live exports, meaning that cattle, sheep, goats and pigs could no longer be shipped from England, Scotland or Wales for fattening or slaughter abroad.

6. Farm animals are killed prematurely

Millions of animals are killed for meat every year in the UK long before their natural lifecycle would end. They may be slaughtered because the exploitation of their bodies has worn them out prematurely or because they are not ‘useful’ to the farming system.

If not selected for breeding, pigs will be killed for meat after four to seven months, cows are generally killed between 2-6 years, when they could naturally reach 20 years. Ewes are culled if they become less fertile or have problems giving birth – usually around three to six years old, a quarter to half of their natural life expectancy. Lambs, by the definition of lamb meat, are killed as babies, between ten weeks and six months old. They never become adult sheep.

A hen’s natural lifespan is 5-10 years, but farmed hens are ‘spent’ and killed after 72 weeks – that’s around 1.5 years – when their egg production begins to wane. At a hen’s lowest lifespan, that’s equivalent to a human being ‘spent’ at 24 years of age.

Male chicks are of no use for egg or meat production and are killed almost immediately after hatching. They are either thrown into an industrial grinder (‘macerator’) while still alive, or gassed to death, the preferred method in the UK. France, Germany and Italy have recently banned this practice.

Animal rights activists ask why we should have the right to define the lifespan of any other sentient animal.

Drawing showing the typical life cycle of a dairy cow separation of calves from mothers, dehorning, forced impregnation, intensive milk production, factory farming, and the killing of calves and dairy cows.
Image shows drawing of a typical life of a dairy cow, from separation of calves from mothers, horns removed, forced impregnation, intensive milk production, often factory farmed, and ultimately killed. (C) Moonloft for ECRA.

7. Farm animals slaughtered in cruel conditions

When animals are slaughtered, this is often done in cruel conditions.

RSPCA Assured says:

“Around one in ten farmed animals in the UK are not stunned before they are slaughtered though there are big differences between species, with around 25 per cent of sheep, 10 per cent of meat chickens but only two per cent or less of cattle, hens and turkeys being killed without pre-stunning. Potentially as many as 20 - 30 per cent of poultry are shackled upside down by their legs whilst conscious before being killed. This can cause animals a great deal of pain, stress and suffering.”

Compassion in World Farming also says that the majority of fish people consume “has been killed inhumanely”. On many fish farms, the routine approach is to pull fish out of the water, which they need to breathe, and suffocate in the air.

The impact of industrialised farming on animal welfare

Industrial farming involves large-scale intensive production of crops and animals for human consumption. The most extreme example is factory farms, where animals are reared year round in huge numbers. They are bred to grow quickly and are fed on mono-cropped grain. Factory farms are associated with all the animal welfare issues discussed in this article.

Factory farming is on the rise in the UK. In 2017, the Guardian reported that there were 800 mega farms for animals – a 26% rise in intensive factory farming in six years. These farms have warehouses with more than 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. Likewise globally, “Most farmed fish are reared in what can essentially be considered low-welfare, underwater factory farms”, according to Compassion in World Farming.

While mega farms are its most extreme example, industrial agriculture has locked many other farmers into a system that keeps animal welfare standards low.

The push for profits in farming, but also by big food retailers, has eroded prices. For example, supermarkets have repeatedly squeezed milk producers so that today, most farmers are paid less for their milk in the UK than the cost of production.

Farmers are continually pushed to produce more for less – and it’s inevitably cheaper to keep hens in cages than in a field with trees. Even where farmers do want to do something differently, there are often barriers in terms of infrastructure and investment in order for them to do so. For example, even if a dairy farmer wanted to keep mother and calf together, almost all milking pens are designed too small to allow the calf to enter with their mother.

What are food companies doing about animal welfare and rights?

Lots of companies have animal welfare policies, with criteria like ‘freedom from hunger and thirst’. However, for many multinationals, the bar is very low. It can therefore be difficult to separate those talking the talk from those actually making changes.

Our ratings track companies’ records in terms of both animal welfare and animal rights. Any company selling meat or dairy and eggs loses a whole and half mark under Animal Rights respectively. Companies selling meat, dairy or eggs not labelled as free-range, organic or an equivalent animal welfare standard lose a full mark under Factory Farming.

All of the major supermarkets in our supermarket guide lost a full mark under both Animal Rights and Factory Farming. We found that several of the alternative options, such as Suma, performed much better when it came to animal welfare and rights.

Luckily, more and more companies are moving away from animal products altogether – crucial from an animal rights perspective. In our chocolate guide we found eight companies selling only vegan chocolate, including Picari, Beyond Good, Mia and Fairafric. In all our guides, we highlight the vegan alternatives so that you can avoid animal products altogether, for example dairy-free milk and dairy-free butter/margarine spreads.

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

What can consumers do?

1. Avoid animal products

For some, it will be important to avoid meat and / or dairy altogether. Check out our guides to vegan cheese, vegan & plant milks, and meat-free sausages and burgers, and look out for vegan options in many of our guides including chocolate and butter & spreads.

We highlight totally vegan companies, as well as vegan products or brands – so you can make sure none of your money is going to companies using animals.

Plant milks to replace dairy

We review 26 brands of vegan plant milk in our shopping guide.

We look into their sustainability; what they're made from including almond, coconut, hemp, rice and soya; packaging; plus who produces them. We shine a spotlight on Alpro, owned by dairy company Danone, and make best buy recommendations.

Shopping guide to plant milks

Meat-free burgers and sausages

We review 28 brands of meat alternatives, including tofu.

We look at what meat-free products are made of, soya's potential link to deforestation, big businesses buying up vegan brands,and make recommendations for best buys.

Shopping guide to meat-free sausages and burgers

Eggs and alternatives

Our shopping guide to eggs reviews 43 brands of eggs and vegan egg alternatives.

We investigate egg labelling, vegan egg substitutes, the carbon impact of egg production, the differences between cage, barn, free range, biodynamic and organic eggs, and make best buy recommendations.

Shopping guide to eggs and alternatives

2. Look for better animal welfare schemes

Others may want to continue eating meat and dairy but look for better practices. We have some tips to do this:

  • Buy direct from a farm you trust – Find a farm you think looks good and spend time reading their website and, if you can, speaking to them. Look out for red flags like ‘zero-grazing’ as this generally means the animals are kept indoors all year round. Ask about enrichment, transportation and access to pasture. Local farms often sell directly at markets or through delivery.
  • Speak to the retailer – If you buy from a butcher or local store, speak to them about what conditions they expect. They may be able to point you to the products associated with better welfare, and if they can’t you might get them thinking.
  • Look out for labels – The strongest certification can be a good way to ensure better conditions. Below we run through the different options available and what they mean – as well as which ones actually make a difference in terms of animal rights.
  • Use our guides – As well as highlighting vegan products and companies, we rate brands that do sell animal products on their standards. Use our guides to find the best of the bunch. In particular, our guides to dairy milk, eggs and butter & spreads point to the best of the bunch.
  • Buy less, buy better – Meat and dairy with better animal welfare standards can be more expensive. Why not prioritise buying better but less of it? Our demand for so much meat and dairy is helping fuel the drive for ever increasing and cheaper production. This is also a good step to take when it comes to climate change and the environment.

3. Campaign for animal rights

If you want to go beyond changing buying habits, there are lots of animal rights campaigns out there in need of supporters. This could be signing a Viva! petition or getting involved in actions with Animal Rebellion and Compassion in World Farming.

Animal welfare labels on food and what they mean

There are lots of different animal welfare labels – some with truly higher standards than the norm and others which mean little to nothing. Each label should have different requirements for example hens vs sheep. Here, we run through some general guarantees that different labels for meat and dairy offer and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Logos of 5 animal welfare labels: Soil Association Organic, Pasture Promise, RSPCA Assured, Pasture for Life, Red Tractor
Some of the welfare labels for animals

Labels for meat, dairy and eggs

Soil Association Organic

Soil Association’s Organic label is one of your best bets when it comes to eggs, meat and dairy. It is the strongest of the organic standards. Standards include:

  • Access to pasture and space for all animals
  • No routine use of antibiotics for all animals
  • No beak trimming for chickens
  • Five-times smaller chicken flocks than for free-range
  • No tail docking or teeth trimming for pigs
  • Fish must be killed humanely

Organic

Other organic standards can vary but standard requirements include:

  • Animals should be grazed outside for most of the year (weather permitting)
  • Minimum weaning age for calves is 12 weeks
  • The routine use of antibiotics is prohibited
  • Artificial pesticides cannot be used on the land
  • No use of GM feed
  • For eggs, Soil Association is certainly the best of the organic bunch

Pasture For Life

Pasture For Life (PFLA) is another of the strongest options. The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association has established the label. It is a farmer-led organisation which champions the benefits of dairy (beef and lamb) production just from grass and pasture, with no grains being fed to the animals.

The Pasture for Life standard currently only applies to cow’s milk, beef and lamb, and its notable requirements include:

  • No zero grazing
  • Prohibiting the use of soya and GM animal feed
  • Minimum weaning age for calves is 12 weeks
  • Calves must not be killed (by the Pasture for Life farm) for any reason other than non-recoverable illness or injury
  • Antibiotic use is kept to a minimum and reviewed on a case-by-case basis

Pasture Promise

Pasture Promise is another option focused on outside grazing for dairy products, but CIWF reckons that it offers a lower standard than Pasture for Life. Legally, free-range milk is yet to be defined and so The Free Range Dairy Network has developed their own working definition: the network requires its farmers to graze their cows outside for 180 days and nights a year (except in exceptional circumstances) before they can use the Free Range Pasture Promise logo on their products. They also prohibit free range dairy farmers from shooting calves unless it is ‘to alleviate pain or suffering’. No information could be found regarding this standard’s approach to antibiotic use.

Free Range

Unfortunately, Free Range is not quite the promise of open space and prancing lambs we often imagine. Welfare standards can vary wildly between different free range producers, from small-scale egg farmers with hens in a field to industrial producers who adhere to the minimum standards. For eggs, the minimum standards mean that many free range hens are kept in vast, multi-tiered sheds typically with 16,000 or more other birds, few of which ever see daylight. They must be given some kind of daytime outside access, but in such confined spaces only few birds are ever able to actually make it outside. CIWF consistently places free range amongst the lower assurances for animal welfare across all sectors.

RSPCA Assured

RSPCA Assured is slightly higher than the legal minimum. For example, for dairy cows a local anaesthetic is required when disbudding horns; embryo transfer and ovum pick-up are prohibited except in exceptional circumstances and outdoor grazing is encouraged. Antibiotics use is monitored and should be used only when ‘necessary’, with preventative measures being encouraged. Fish must be killed humanely. The use of GM animal feed is not prohibited.

Red Tractor

You can basically ignore Red Tractor when it comes to animal welfare standards. It just means that the animal lived in the UK and was treated in line with minimum legal requirements.

CIWF says: “Some of the standards benefit animal welfare by going beyond minimum legislation, such as prohibiting castration of meat pigs, a slightly reduced stocking density for meat chickens and the requirement for on-farm health and welfare monitoring. However in some circumstances the standards inadequately reflect the legislation, such as provision for manipulable material for pigs, and do not address welfare issues not reflected in legislation, such as confinement of sows during farrowing and permanent housing and tethering of dairy cows.”

For more information about what these various standards mean in each sector, check out our article on dairy standards and our shopping guide to eggs.

Logos of 4 fish welfare labels: Soil Association Organic, RSPCA Assured, Friend of the Sea, Marine Stewardship Council
Welfare labels for fish

Labels for fish

RSPCA Assured (farmed salmon and trout)

RSPCA Assured is probably the strongest label for animal welfare in terms of farmed fish. Unfortunately, it only covers farmed trout and salmon. Its criteria include:

  • Fish must be stunned before slaughter and killed humanely
  • For salmon, only 17 kg can be kept per m3 of water (which is stronger than its criteria for trout)
  • Genetic engineering is prohibited
  • Fish must not be kept out of the water for more than 15 seconds
  • Antibiotics can only be used to treat (not prevent) disease
  • A maximum is given for ‘fasting duration’ (in which fish will not be fed)
  • Routine mutilations are banned
  • Water quality must be monitored
  • Cleaner-fish (which help to clean dead skin etc. from the fish that are being farmed) have welfare conditions

Soil Association Organic (farmed)

There are a number of organic labels covering farmed fish, including Soil Association Organic. It ensures that the fish were stunned before slaughter and killed humanely. It limits the ‘maximum stocking density’, i.e. the weight of live fish allowed per m3. For example, for salmon only 20kg are allowed in each cubic meter. It also bans the use of antibiotics to prevent (rather than treat) disease.

However, it falls down in a few areas. For example, according to Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), it allows routine mutilations, only ensures enrichment for freshwater fish and does not have a maximum amount of time fish can be kept out of the water.

Soil Association Organic is slightly stronger than other organic labels e.g. it also ensures the welfare of ‘cleaner fish’.

Friends of the Sea (farmed and wild caught)

Friends of the Sea is a sustainability and animal welfare label for both farmed and wild caught fish. Its criteria include:

  • Fish must be stunned before killing
  • Only humane slaughter practices allowed
  • Fish can only be kept out of water for a maximum of 15 seconds without anaesthesia
  • Structural enrichment should be provided

However, like organic, CIWF says it permits routine mutilations. It is also weaker than Organic on crowding for farmed fish, allowing up to 60kg of trout per m3, compared to up to 25 for Organic, according to CIWF.

While it is probably the strongest option for wild caught fish, it is less good than RSPCA and Soil Association Organic when it comes to farmed fish.

Marine Stewardship Council (wild caught)

The blue MSC label can only be applied to wild caught fish. While this means that their lives were lived in more natural conditions, it doesn’t necessarily ensure they were caught or killed humanely. In fact, the MSC doesn’t have any conditions on stunning before slaughter or on humane killing.

The MSC label focuses more on sustainability. Ruth Westcott from environmental alliance Sustain says that in this regard, it’s “definitely the best we’ve got”. However, even in this area, its effectiveness has been called into question. In March 2022, the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy accused the MSC of certifying fisheries associated with high levels of bycatch – whereby dolphins, turtles and other animals are inadvertently captured along with the fish. MSC said the claims were “misleading”.

Weaker fish welfare labels include Global GAP, Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), Certified Quality Aquaculture (CQA), and Aquaculture Stewardship Council. For more details check out the table from Compassion in World Farming.

Which is the best animal welfare standard for meat, dairy and eggs?

Depending on your stance, your best bet may be to avoid meat and dairy altogether. If you’re interested in buying better meat, we’d recommend looking for Soil Association Organic as the general best bet.

Compassion in World Farming has also compiled a handy table of what they consider to be the best to worst standards. The labels are listed in order of animal welfare potential – highest first.

Which is the best animal welfare standard for fish?

If you want to eat fish, your best bet is probably to buy wild caught fish certified under the Friends of the Sea label. This ensures that it has lived a natural life and been slaughtered humanely.

For farmed fish, RSPCA Assured is the best bet, and is sold in Aldi, Coop, Lidl, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. However, it only covers salmon and trout. Soil Association Organic is the next best bet.

What to avoid when it comes to animal welfare?

Here is a list of words to look out for that are red flags for companies you may want to avoid:

  •     Zero grazing
  •     Barn hens
  •     Battery hens
  •     Enriched cage eggs