Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Humane Food Manager, Hope Bertram, to find out more about humane food.
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Opening quote: I think as long as animals are farmed for food or fibre, then it's the RSPCA's role to make sure that we can improve their welfare.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast series. My name is Brian Daly and today I'll be talking with Hope Bertram, the humane food manager at RSPCA about how they're working to improve the living conditions for farm animals in Australia. Welcome to the podcast Hope.
Hope: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me.
Brian: So what are we actually talking about when we use that term? humane food?
Hope: Sure. Yeah. So sometimes I do get a bit of a perplexed look when I say that's my role. So yeah, we work, the RSPCA works a lot with improving farm animal welfare. So we have a number of different programs where we create solutions for, practical solutions for the farmers to farm to better standards, or for consumers to choose a more ethically farmed product, so humane food, kind of, I guess the combination of all of that and it's about offering consumers something that means going above and beyond what the legal requirements are in Australia. So we have a few different programs, one being the approved farming scheme. So that's our own independent set of standards for farming. So farming layer hens for producing eggs or farming pigs for RSPCA approved pork. We also we have a program called choose wisely, which is reminding people about the food they eat out of home so when they're eating out at cafes and restaurants to make sure they think about what's on the menu and if the eggs don't say anything, they just say eggs then maybe ask at the restaurant or they or their cage or their cage free and choose the cage free option. So humane food, it's coming back I guess to the RSPCA’s position around farming animals for food or fire and while that continues in Australia, that's our role to improve the welfare of Australia's farm animals.
Brian: Now, a lot of people would associate RSPCA with pets with cats and dogs, but the RSPCA has actually been looking after farm animals for as long as it's been around. Is that right? Essentially?
Hope: Yeah, it is. Yeah, certainly Australians do associate the RSPCA with our work with companion animals and cats and dogs. probably best known for our work with shelters and adopting animals out. But yeah, historically, the RSPCA actually started in Victoria improving the welfare of working horses and farm animals.
Brian: So you had a long history in, in looking after farm animals. And when we talking about welfare of those farm animals, what sort of things are you talking about?
Hope: Well, I guess the RSPCA’s position on farm animals is really about giving animals a better quality of life, so catering for their needs. We don't necessarily think the law goes far enough for farm animals. So what might be acceptable for farm animals isn't acceptable for the cats and dogs. So, you know, in the absence of better legislation and legal requirements for farming and farm animals, we've got, I guess, a lot of practical solutions to improve their welfare on the ground today.
Brian: So it's about looking at the welfare of the animals in conventional systems and saying, how can this be improved?
Hope: Yes, so there's a number of different farming systems where or the RSPCA doesn't believe they cater for the animals needs. So there might be the argument there that the animals may be healthy, but welfare goes you know, far more than just health. It's really about catering for you know, those really basic behavioural needs. You know, an example of that could be you know, the layer hen likes to lay her eggs in a nest. So in a cage system, they can't lay their eggs in a nest, and they also like to do things like dust bath. So that's where they're, you know, getting a bit deep down into a bit of dirt and they do that to, you know, clean their feathers preen themselves, and they can't do that in a cage. And you know, you see some pretty shocking images of it's called sham dust bathing where hens in cages are chronically frustrated because they're, they're trying to do this behaviour and they can't. So there are concerns with some production systems in Australia but then there's also you know, there are a host of production systems out there that are looking to change in order to go above and beyond just health and what do those animals need to have a good life?
Brian: Yes. Because that's what as consumers we we'd like to think that the Old MacDonald's farm image is something we have when we go to the supermarket, but it's not obviously the case in the really intensive systems. You don't see a sow stall in a Old MacDonald's farm for instance.
Hope: Yes, yeah, we certainly do have that we have that sort of picture in our mind and maybe it's this boutique bespoke idyllic system with lots of different species. You know, we've got some cows over here and you know, this one's producing milk and we've got some layer hens. farming in Australia, you know has certainly become more industrialised more intensified. The RSPCA has developed farming standards to improve the welfare of some of those more intensively farmed species. So, where we, where we know there are large numbers of animals and we can make an incremental improvement to their welfare. That's why we're focused on you know, pigs layer hens, meat chickens, as an example. But there's also a host of other species we may like to work with in the future where we can also make improvements to their welfare.
Brian: Because obviously you don't set the laws but you can create standards to help improve the conditions.
Hope: Yeah, so there are basic legal requirements that need to be met. But the RSPCA certainly doesn't necessarily agree with those minimum requirements, and we think a lot more could be done to improve the welfare. So we've established our own program called the approved farming scheme, which actually sets standards. And those standards cover a whole host of factors that impact animal welfare of farm animals and different species. And then producers, farmers can volunteer to participate in that program and, and go above and beyond what they're required to do.
Brian: Do things seem to be improving, I guess, there seems to be increasing in purchases of cage free eggs and so forth. But is that consumer sentiment improving legislation or is it just a matter of farmers, as you say, wanting to adopt standards that are higher than the basic?
Hope: Yeah, look, I would probably say farmers going above and beyond is moving further ahead then the law. So things such as the standards and guidelines which are the you know, the poultry standards and guidelines have been under review for some time now. And that happens actually happen every decade, I think it's been sort of around 14 years since the last set of standards and guidelines were developed. So they're the, the basic, you know, legal requirements that the producers need to operate to those standards and guidelines for poultry, they still allow some really, I guess, miserable conditions for hens. So they still allow hens to be kept in barren battery cages, which, you know, is the plight of 11 million hens in Australia today. So I think what we are seeing is a shift in a number of sectors, I think we're seeing a shift in businesses, turning their back to that kind of production system and knowing that, you know, in terms of their social licence to operate and wanting to do the right thing, they need to make decisions to move away from that, you know, sourcing those products. So while they're still legal, we're seeing a greatest shift from I guess, end users and in within the supply chain, sort of moving away from certain practices. And you know, some of those things are the result of companies now. It's the right thing to do and that they really need to meet consumers expectations who not only expect that the business they're purchasing from is making an ethical choice but also it gives the consumer the ability to also purchase a better product for welfare as well.
Brian: You talk about that supply chain there and the businesses like 11 million hens in cages for most of us that are buying cage free eggs and supermarket that's still a large number because that's like over half the hens in Australia. Is that right? Yeah. So to us it's it seems like a large number but can you explain where those eggs go the cage eggs go because you know, the increasing purchasing we have of cage free in supermarkets we suggest that well, who's buying these eggs?
Hope: Yeah, so yeah, essentially in Australia today we've got around 11 million hens in cages and I think the figure is something around 18 and a half million hens in Australia. So, of those remaining hens, they would be in a cage free system so it could be in a barn or it could be in a barn with access to the outdoors, which is also known as free range. So yeah, it's a good question. Where are all these cage eggs going? We've seen a pretty phenomenal shift in the last five years in particular of businesses turning their back on cage eggs, so making commitments to phase out the use of cage eggs. So the likes of subway McDonald's hungry Jack's major food service companies have switched and they don't use any cage eggs in their whole eggs in their business. The retailers have also made pretty phenomenal commitments. So the likes of Cole's won't sell caged eggs, either as shell eggs or in their own branded products by 2023.
Brian: When you say in their own brand products, Yeah.
Hope: Yep, baked goods, mayonnaise, eggs, often a hidden ingredient that yeah, we don't, don't think about so. Besides just shell eggs. So, you know, cartons of eggs we've got eggs as ingredient in a variety of products. And we then have eggs going into the food service industry so it cafes restaurants. So yeah, we're seeing less cage shell eggs on the shelf. But what's just as important I think when people are making sure they buy cage free eggs at the supermarket is that they're also thinking about what eggs are in the products they eat when they're out of home. So when they're out having Sunday brunch, what's where the eggs from on that Eggs Benedict and start to ask those questions because that's what's really going to drive change and get more hens our cages.
Brian: And so generally speaking, that I guess, as you're saying the poultry review is and the way the laws are national or is a mix of national and state law, because the RSPCA also has state and federal body as well and how does that work?
Hope: Sure. So in terms of the standards and guidelines, so they are a national set of standards and guidelines, but they then get adopted by each of the states and territories. So, when those standards and guidelines which are under review, and when they get published, I will go to each of the state and territory agricultural ministers to be either adopted or perhaps you know, they might make some amendments for their state. So there is the ability I think for some states who want to take a you know, a firm stand on improving animal welfare to look at what they can do within their state. I think an example of that would be the ACT don't allow hens to be farmed in in battery cages in the ACT. So that's a territory that has certainly gone above and beyond what the legal requirements are nationally, and the positive thing we did see, Canberra only has one commercial sized layer hen farm and it has converted from a cage system to ban system which is a good outcome for hens. So it will be interesting to see what state based ministers do with those standards. And what the RSPCA is really been pushing for is a phase out of cage systems. We really want to see a firm date put on cage systems firstly, no investment in cages in Australia, but secondly, when will those systems be wrapped up in and it will actually mean more hens out of cages and into different production systems.
Brian: And other space as well. But I mean, we're talking about hens. But you look after all farm animals really across the board is the four different species, different elements of welfare that you look for that you can improve.
Hope: Yeah, I mean, we do spend a lot of our time talking about hens because, you know, there are still so many hens can find a cages and I think you could argue that 11 million hens in cages is the biggest animal welfare issue in Australia today. I think Australia without putting a firm date on phasing out cages from a government level, we are lagging behind the rest of the world. I mean, other countries have mandated phase outs of that type of farming system. But yeah, there's a whole host of other welfare issues with other species and the RSPCA. We do spend a lot of time working on improving welfare of other species an example of that would be the intensive confinement of pigs and how pigs are farmed in Australia. There's been some really positive industry developments with pig farming in Australia, but there's still a long way to go with looking at different farming techniques and general husbandry and you know, things they do day to day to pigs that we wouldn't think as is humane.
Brian: It's nice to hear that there's a bit of improvement going on within the industry there as well. So, and it defined with consumers wanting to know more about where their food comes from that that helps improve the lives of these animals or increase the impetus for farmers to raise the standards.
Hope: Yeah, look, I think there's no doubt that more consumers are interested in where their food comes from. I think there's still variables around how much people want to know and there's probably a fine line between perhaps knowing too much. But I think it is really important that people have more of a connection about food and there's lots of things so, that have probably influenced that over the last few years, even sort of dating back to the global financial crisis and, and people having, you know, less disposable income people sort of cooking more the rise of shows like master chef, you know, people wanting to master their signature dish. And I think, you know, that's been going on for more than a decade, that show which, you know, I think does show that people are interested in cooking and understanding a bit more about the foods supply chain. It's a really interesting time. And, you know, our role at the RSPCA is to try to give people as much information as we can and what they take from that, you know, some people will certainly want more information and we're always keen to, to provide that where we can so they can actually make an informed choice.
Brian: As you say, it's often the case because we are so removed from the process and we don't like to talk about the end stages of production so much. I guess that brings up the point of the term humane food might sound like a bit of an oxymoron to some people, but I guess, with well over 80% of Australians eating meat regularly, it's a reality that's not going anywhere soon. So we need to look at ways that these animals can have the best life possible. Is that the way you look at it from the RSPCA?
Hope: Yeah, I mean, I think as long as animals are farmed for food or fibre, then it's the RSPCA's role to make sure that we can improve their welfare. We are seeing an increase in vegetarianism and veganism. However, we're also seeing an increase in meat consumption from so you know, with the average Australian eating 45 kilos of chicken maize a year. It's a pretty mind blowing number. I mean, we certainly we're not encouraging meat consumption, but we're wanting to create a solution that does improve welfare because in the absence of better laws, farming will continue and we want to do our best to be able to raise the bar incrementally for farm animals.
Brian: So it's quite a pragmatic approach you take that says, this is happening right now. And there are animals or millions of animals in the system that you obviously need to look out for.
Hope: Yeah, I mean, animals will continue to be farmed. And you know, we can't sit back just waiting for you know, that that day when potentially, systems like battery cages might be phased out, I mean, we really want to create a practical solution to improve farm animal welfare, it's to give farmers who want to go above and beyond a point of differentiation and then it's to give consumers a product that they can trust that it does tick the box for animal welfare. So you know, it's a little bit of a probably a bit of a minefield in terms of labelling and you know, the egg aisle is a is a confusing place. So we want to be able to create a solution for consumers wanting to make a good choice as well.
Brian: Yes. And I guess they're the basic choices to choose the cage free eggs. That's the most basic step consumers can make to make it help the change.
Hope: Yeah. So cage free is certainly better than buying a cage product. I think always remembering cage free, whether it's at the supermarket or out of home. And then next step is, you know, if you want to go above and beyond that, you know, to look for some reputable certification on the product and to, you know, do a little bit of digging around about what those standards mean, and more importantly, how they're enforced. I mean, as one thing, I think, to have a standard, but it's another thing to, to ensure that it's enforced.
Brian: Yes, yes. Because otherwise the labels will be meaningless.
Hope: That's it.
Brian: Yeah. I guess, you know, looking back on welfare of animals and it's something really, people started talking about globally, you know about, you know, 50 years ago, I guess with the five freedoms, freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort from pain and injury from and the freedom to express natural behaviours and fear and distress, those sorts of things, they still very much form the basis of what you look at for assessing the health and well being of an animal that that's where you look for making sure all those five freedoms are covered.
Hope: I think, yeah, first point of call is the five freedoms. And I guess the work we do, is certainly underpinned by the five freedoms. I think in developing animal welfare standards and standards under the approved farming scheme. The five freedoms is the starting point. And then there's a whole host of things that we consider in terms of what those standards mean. So some of those things could be our RSPCA Australia policy. Some of them could be the latest science on a particular production system or a particular species that we're looking at. What are the codes of practice so what's later. And then where do we want to get to? And then, you know what, what's happening on the ground in Australia today. So we want to create solutions that are achievable, but actually make a difference and create standards that, you know, encourage participation, rather than making, I guess the bar so high that they're, they're not achievable and commercially, you know, farmers can't make it work. So it's a bit of a balancing act. But yeah, certainly underpinned by the five freedoms.
Brian: And live exports have been another hot topic in animal welfare. That's really struck a chord with the community. How do you, how's the RSPCA go about working to implement change in these areas, as I said, you can't make the legislation but you can have a voice obviously a very well respected voice in in talking about these issues.
Hope: You know, we have multiple approaches a lot of people you're probably They don't know, or, you know, unexposed to sort of the behind the scenes work that can go on for years. So the conversations with industry and peak body groups and sitting down at the table pushing for improvements, talking about these welfare issues in a public space is also really important. So we know that more consumers are interested in farm animal welfare. You know, people were absolutely shocked and appalled at some of those conditions. And not only in relation to live cattle exports to Indonesia, but also more recently, the information in relation to live export of sheep. A similar thing in terms of, you know, talking around the chronic frustration of hens in cages so people, people in Australia don't accept that this. This should be common practice and it still remains common practice today. So one of the solutions is also around trying to guess create that voice for consumers. So we know people want to write to be a part of the standards and guidelines process. They want to provide feedback and be part of the consultation process to say, I as an Australian and purchaser of eggs I, you know, I don't accept that production system, and I want the government to do something about it.
Brian: And there's been a lot that have voiced their opinion.
Hope: Yeah. So it's been, you know, it's really, it's, it's phenomenal. So I think, over 150,000, I believe, submissions to that public consultation process. So one of the most one of the biggest reactions to any public consultation in Australia's history, and I think that's just evidence of, you know, people having such a strong view on this. The other you know, the other part of that is, yeah, it's creating, I guess, an opportunity for people to vote with their wallet, vote for animal welfare and support a more humanely farmed product. So that's happening today and will continue to create that opportunity for not only farmers wanting to raise the bar, but consumers wanting to support it too.
Brian: So you can see that there has been some improvements over the last, say 20 years, but there's obviously still some work to do.
Hope: Yeah, there's still lots of work to do. But I think, you know, since we created the approved farming scheme, around 22 years ago, we've now got six different sets of standards under the scheme for different species and the adoption of those standards across those different industries that participated and the retail channels that support the program as well. We've seen, I think something like 1.6 billion animals farm to RSPCA standard since we started so it's, you know, it's, it's an amazing number, but obviously a lot more to do and, and we'll keep sort of tracking long term to improve welfare where we can.
Brian: Yeah, it's important area to work in. Well, thanks for that Hope. And thank you for listening. If you'd like any more information about today's topic, visit the RSPCA Australia website, at rspca.org.au You can also subscribe to the series at the website, or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.