Farm assurance schemes create a smokescreen for animal exploitation.
Blog written by Julie Hurst, volunteer blog writer

In three months time, RSPCA Assured will be marking a milestone. On 6th July the farm assurance scheme will be celebrating its 30th birthday. Last year, chief executive Mike Baker commented that its annual celebrations were a “great time to recognise the huge strides that RSPCA Assured has taken”, and that the focus was to push ahead “to reach our ambitious goal of at least half of all farmed animals in the UK being reared to the RSPCA’s welfare standards by 2030.” However, have the past three decades actually seen significant progress by RSPCA Assured in terms of farmed animal welfare? And given the horrors routinely revealed by undercover investigations, including our own, do animals who are farmed really benefit by being raised to RSPCA standards?


We have an abundance of farm assurance schemes in the UK, more than many other countries, although it’s unclear exactly what the impetus was behind their creation. But whether it was industry-led, born out of a desire to help promote certain products in an increasingly competitive market, or driven by consumers who wanted to be more confident about the quality and production standards of the food they buy, they are now the key tool for assessing on-farm animal welfare.

One of the main reasons for the large number of such schemes in this country is due to the government’s general desire to minimise regulation in favour of a voluntary approach. However, this lack of central direction means that there is no widely accepted set of guidelines or procedures for assessing animal welfare. This leaves those who operate farm assurance schemes to be responsible for setting their own individual policies, and deciding how they are to be applied.


RSPCA Assured was formed to ‘allow customer demand to drive progress in welfare’. A set of ‘higher welfare’ standards were conceived, supported by appropriate product labelling, which would supposedly make it easier for the public to ‘spot products from animals that had a better life’ and in turn, encourage support for subscribing farms. Launched in 1994 it was originally called Freedom Foods, but in response to research showing that a majority of consumers would recognise and trust an ‘RSPCA’ farm animal welfare label, it was rebranded in 2015 to RSPCA Assured. 

Interestingly, this rebranding was for the consumer market only – the Freedom Foods brand continues for business-to-business activity and remains the name of the limited company – and this highlights just how much the farm assurance scheme relies and indeed capitalises on the high regard in which the public hold the RSPCA and its ethics. 

The RSPCA Assured scheme was the first to focus solely on farm animal welfare, and also to require the implementation of RSPCA-developed welfare standards. However, when it was launched there weren’t actually any formulated standards in place for assessing farms, which begs the question how could they be awarded ‘higher welfare’ status? Additionally, assessments were carried out by a solitary assessor who ‘checked to make sure everything on the farm was looking OK’. Hardly a reassuring start…


According to RSPCA Assured, farms that subscribe to the scheme today are assessed and monitored ‘regularly’ to ensure animals are raised to the RSPCA’s ‘strict higher welfare’ standards from ‘birth/hatching to slaughter.’ Standards are set for food and water provisions, environment, handling, healthcare and transportation. Assessments are stated to be undertaken annually, and almost 4,000 are apparently carried out every year. However, from information on the scheme’s own website these claims are highly questionable. 

Firstly, there are only 20 full-time assessors operating across the UK, which raises doubts as to whether the number of inspections that are said to be undertaken is in fact achievable. (That the scheme also relies heavily on third parties to help with the workload raises its own concerns). Secondly, member farms can actually remain uninspected for up to 14 months. And given that assessments are cited to take place ‘within 12 months of membership renewal’, a farm could effectively remain unchecked for almost two years after its initial inspection. Thirdly, as assessors only spend an average of around two and a half hours at each farm, how much can reasonably be expected to be achieved in such a relatively short period of time?

But perhaps of most concern is the fact that assessments are booked in advance, to save on ‘wasted travel time’. While unannounced visits are not ruled out, the fact that in the event of a formal investigation following a complaint of non-compliance an on-site visit will only be unannounced ‘when possible’, how realistic is it to expect that farms will be subject to ad hoc visits as a matter of routine? And as our own investigations have shown, it’s what happens behind closed doors that matters, which couldn’t be more different from the glossy assurances that are claimed.


Whether it’s new-born chicks in vast hatcheries, chickens raised for meat on mega-farms, ‘free-range’ egg-laying hens or pigs and piglets being transported to slaughterhouses, the grim reality is that so-called ‘higher welfare’ standards are repeatedly being breached, failing the animals and fooling the public. But our exposés also reveal a disturbingly dark side to the industry, which doesn’t seem to feature in the assessors’ remit, and that is the level of abuse we have witnessed being physically inflicted upon innocent animals.

Our hours of undercover footage show what appears to be a culture of cruelty, with farm workers on RSPCA Assured premises across the industry treating animals with complete disdain. They are trodden on, thrown, kicked, stamped on, and crushed by trolleys and trucks as a matter of routine. And we have filmed managers simply looking on. Lame and dying animals are also regularly left to suffer for hours, days, or even weeks on end; pigs are goaded and shocked with electric prods; and live birds have been seen being dropped into buckets of workers’ urine. 


It should be noted that the breaching of standards and physical abuse are not limited to RSPCA Assured premises, and we have filmed similar atrocities at farms operating under other assurance schemes, such as Red Tractor. However, what makes the RSPCA Assured situation particularly shocking is the scheme’s obvious links to the charity.

By association, the public would quite rightly expect the farms covered by the RSPCA Assured scheme to have the very best interests of the animals at heart, not just in terms of the standards to which they are raised and the conditions in which they are kept, but how they are treated. After all, the RSPCA is committed to reducing animal cruelty and dedicates time, money and effort to reducing suffering – it operates a cruelty hotline which in 2021 received over 1 million calls from concerned members of the public, investigated (and closed) over 50,000 complaints during the same year, and secured 751 convictions in court. It seems, however, that farmed animals are simply forgotten.


Farm assurance schemes rely on trust, and this trust is clearly being breached on many levels. However, surprisingly, it’s not the increasingly welfare-aware public that are raising doubts about their role or indeed very existence, but the farm industry itself. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) have recently announced a jointly-run independent review of ‘farm to fork assurance’ to consider whether it’s ‘meeting farmers’ needs’. As NFU President Minette Batters has said, “It’s time for change. Farmers and growers don’t feel that many schemes currently work for them”. 

This unexpected development undoubtedly reflects the fact that when the concept of farm assurance was first introduced, it was argued by some that scheme membership would confer product distinction and so yield a marketing advantage. Indeed, monetary incentives are cited as one of the most important motives for businesses across the industry subscribing to such schemes, and many perceive participation as a ‘necessary evil’.

The best way for RSPCA Assured to mark its 30-year anniversary, and really take a huge stride for animals everywhere, would be to stop supporting animal agriculture, and call time on the raising of animals for food. In short, to show some of the kindness and compassion to all beings, for which the RSPCA is famously known.

As always,

For the animals.

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