Blog written by Claire Hamlett, a freelance journalist and contributor
The RSPCA’s farm certification scheme, RSPCA Assured, promises “enriched living conditions”, “humane slaughter”, and “space to move” for animals who are farmed. It covers more than 24 million land animals including laying and broiler chickens, pigs, sheep, beef and dairy cows, turkeys, and veal calves. More than 1,800 food products bear the RSPCA Assured logo.
Approval from the scheme may certainly make consumers feel better about buying animal products, but does it really help the animals? Our investigations show otherwise, exposing the flaw in taking a welfarist instead of a rights-based approach to protecting animals.
Twenty-five years ago, the RSPCA – the oldest animal protection charity in the world – asked itself whether it should get involved in animal farming. “This was a difficult question for the Society to answer,” it says on its website. “Should an animal welfare charity be working with the meat industry to raise standards?” It decided it would benefit the animals to do so and devised species-specific standards and measures for implementation and enforcement. It started out as Freedom Food in 1994, and became RSPCA Assured in 2015 because of better brand recognition.
The scheme has 20 trained assessors who carry out pre-announced annual inspections of farms to check they are complying with RSPCA Assured standards.
If a complaint is made about a RSPCA Assured farm, there is an investigation. These involve establishing “the basic facts” before sending an assessor to the farm. Sometimes these visits are unannounced, but not always. If breaches of standards are found, the farm may receive sanctions, ranging from giving “informal advice” to further unannounced inspections to temporary or permanent suspension from the scheme.
In theory, it makes sense for a charity concerned with animal welfare would seek to improve the lives of animals who are farmed. But in practice, it gives approval to the commodification and exploitation of animals – including in the abominable veal industry – while in many cases farms fail to adhere to the standards.
In 2022, we secretly recorded 125 hours of footage over two months from loading and unloading sites for RSPCA Assured farm Peddars Pigs. Pigs were shocked with an electric goad, slapped, crushed and kicked whilst being transported to slaughter. Workers hit young, frail piglets with boards, kicked them, threw them in the air and down trailer ramps, and hung them upside down. Over the course of a single day, 3,000 piglets were loaded and unloaded at RSPCA Assured farms by workers from Peddars Pigs.
Workers also used an electric goad to shock finisher pigs – those who have been fattened until the age of 5-6 months old and were due to be slaughtered – in their faces, shoulders, fronts and rear ends. The pigs tried to escape in a panic, but were shocked repeatedly even though they had no room to move anywhere else. The use of electric goads is prohibited by both the RSPCA and Red Tractor. UK animal welfare legislation states that goads should only be used as a last resort, but the Peddars Pigs workers couldn’t even stick to this minimal amount, using the goads freely. The pigs were further physically assaulted whilst being loaded onto a transporter; some were lame and scrotal hernias appeared to be a common health issue amongst the terrified animals.
RSPCA Assured standards are supposed to cover every aspect of the animals’ lives, including transportation.
The scheme is supposed to improve the lives of chickens by prohibiting fast-growing breeds that suffer serious health problems as a result. When the chickens are caught to be loaded onto trucks bound for the slaughterhouse, RSPCA Assured standards are meant to ensure they are handled gently by trained staff. But another of our investigations revealed that chickens are suffering horribly on RSPCA Assured farms.
In 2019, our hidden cameras caught three months of footage at Free Range Chickens Ltd, an RSPCA Assured farm in Suffolk. Day-old chicks were thrown out of crates from a height of four feet onto a hard floor by a worker who also walked through the shed, kicking and treading on chicks as she went. One baby chick was filmed suffering for over eight hours on the floor before finally succumbing to their injuries. Workers killed other injured chicks they found by breaking their necks on feeder lines. But some were left to die over a period of days. It is standard on chicken farms to kill sick birds rather than provide them with medical treatment.
Instead of carrying out the daily welfare checks mandated by RSPCA Assured, workers were filmed on their phones, sitting down, and urinating on shed floors. One lame and clearly sick chicken was left to suffer for at least two days, unable to access food and water, before finally dying.
The slow-growing breeds of chickens on the farm still suffered similar problems to fast-growing breeds, including lameness, heart problems, leg deformities and hock burns. The RSPCA Assured Guidelines state that birds must be given access to natural light as soon as possible, and at least within seven days of birth. Yet for over 28 days, chickens had no natural light. Artificial lights were left on for 52 hours – breaching guidelines that 6 to 12 hours of darkness must be provided in a 24 hour period.
When it came to catching the birds to send them to slaughter, the workers were anything but gentle. They grabbed chickens by their feet and threw them roughly into crates, trapping their heads, legs and wings. Birds were kicked, swore and yelled at when they tried to upright themselves and escape the crates crammed with around 45 birds each. With just a few workers, 4,750 chickens were caught in one hour. It isn’t possible to move so many birds so quickly and be ‘humane’ at the same time.
More recently, we have released an undercover investigation exposing yet another RSPCA Assured company – AD Harvey. This specialist ‘catching’ company is contracted to carry out ‘depopulation’ of laying hens. This is the process whereby end-of-lay hens are rounded up for slaughter once they reach around 18 months old. The barbarity by the workers was unbelievable.
In the presence of management, workers kicked hens, threw them by their legs, hit them with feeders and crates, and held up to 10 birds at a time. Never once were they picked up on their abhorrent torture of hens. Not only is this catching company RSPCA Assured, but so was one of the ‘free-range’ farms where the filming took place. This is the first time in the UK that footage has been recorded of this secretive side of the egg industry.
The abuse we have uncovered on RSPCA Assured farms show that the welfarist approach will never save animals from suffering. The only way a so-called animal protection group can truly help farmed animals is by doing everything they can to bring an end to animal farming.
For the animals.