Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Humane Food Manager, Hope Bertram, to find out more about the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme.
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Opening quote: What we're really aiming to do is to improve the lives of as many farm animals as possible. So we're creating standards that they not only need to improve farm animal welfare, but also they need to be achievable, and in essence commercially viable because there's no point having a set of standards that essentially no one can meet.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast series. My name is Brian Daly and today I'm pleased to welcome Hope Bertram the humane food manager at RSPCA, back into the studio to talk about the amazing work she does with the RSPCA approved farming scheme. Welcome back, Hope.
Hope: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me.
Brian: Now, I've been fortunate enough to visit a few of these farms over the years as you know, and I've seen the improvements for myself, but for those unfamiliar with it. Tell us what the RSPCA approved farming scheme is all about.
Hope: Sure. So the RSPCA, we do a lot of work with farm animals so probably best known for our work with cats and dogs. But for a number of years, we've been looking at practical solutions to improve farm animal welfare and the approved farming scheme is certainly that. So we developed the scheme around 22 years ago. And it's essentially a certification programme where we have our own farming standards. So farmers and producers in the industry can join the scheme. So those standards go above and beyond what's required by law, the, I guess, a very holistic approach to improving farm animal welfare. So you have a bit of bedtime reading in that document if you wanted to read more, the standards are publicly available and really, it's about creating, I guess, a programme that we can vouch for those standards and we go to farm and assess against those standards.
Brian: So the standards go above the legislation the law what sort of improvements are you making to improve the lives of the animals.
Hope: So the RSPCA approved farming scheme standards offer commercially feasible standards to industry for different species. So we have six different species covered under the standards. So layer hens meat, chickens, pigs, turkeys, farmed Atlantic salmon, which is one of our more recent standards, and also dairy veal. So the standards themselves they take into account RSPCA Australia policy, they're underpinned by the principles of the five freedoms. They also take into account what's commercially feasible in Australia today. And at the heart of the scheme, you know, what we're really aiming to do is to improve the lives of as many farm animals as possible. So we're creating standards that they not only need to improve farm animal welfare, but also they need to be achievable. And in essence commercially viable, because there's no point having a set of standards that essentially no one can meet.
Brian: And we do consume a lot of farm animals, a lot of meat in Australia. So you are talking large scale commercial farming operations, but looking to improve those the conditions for the animals in those farms.
Hope: Yeah, so the species that we have under the scheme at the moment are the most intensively farmed animals in Australia. So not only have the greatest number, but also where we can make the greatest improvement to their welfare. So you know, an example of what we think is good welfare would be no intensive confinement for pigs. So in Australia, it's still legal to confine pigs to sow stalls, which is when they're pregnant, and then when they have their piglets they put into another intensive confinement system called a farrowing crate. But in the approved farming scheme, we don't allow either of those types of housing, we focus on creating for a housing environment that lets pigs do the things I like to do. So, for a sow, it's about building a nest, having her piglets being able to move away and have the space that she needs to be able to display those natural behaviours. There's also besides just the housing side of things, the standards also focus on you know, some of the routine farm practices that that are carried out in Australian production. So another example for pigs is, you know, teeth clipping and tail docking are routine practices in the conventional pork industry. And we don't allow those kind of practices under our standards. So yeah, the standards are, I guess, quite robust in terms of the areas of production that they cover, and go through from birth through to slaughter.
Brian: So they looked at from what we can improve, for as many of these animals as possible in these large production systems but still, but it's still commercially viable.
Hope: Yeah, look, there's no doubt that farming to better welfare standards cost more. So to meet an RSPCA standard, there's most likely less animals farmed, then what you could do in a conventional farming system or what's allowed onto the law. So we have a lower stocking densities. There's also a higher cost input for you know, stockpersonship and handling procedures and monitoring animals more frequently and things such as enrichment so it costs farmers more to, to buy straw and enrichment embedding for an RSPCA approved farm. And, you know, we'd really love to see that recognised at the price point. So, my message to consumers that higher welfare costs more and you know, consumers should be prepared to pay for it.
Brian: It seems to be improving standards. I've visited a few of those farms in Western Australia, where their growing these approved farming scheme pork products and talking to the farmers their rates of production, they said they can get pretty close to those on intensive farm. So it seems that it is a workable solution that you're getting there in those situations.
Hope: Yeah, look while there yeah, there are certainly some financial challenges around meeting a better standard a well run a production system can see those returns and I guess at the heart of the standards around not only raising the bar and the focus on animal welfare, but you know, we want to create a, I guess a practical solution for farmers and for it to remain, you know, to make good business sense for them. And then at the other end, I guess create the demand for it around consumer awareness and encouraging consumers to look for a more humanely found product when you know either at the supermarket or when they're eating out.
Brian: Talking about the commercial viability how’s the licencing scheme for the approved farming scheme, how’s it funded?
Hope: So the approved farming scheme is not for profit and it's not funded by donations to the RSPCA. It's actually funded by fees paid by licensees that are part of the scheme. So, they are the brands that choose to source our RSPCA Approved products and they have a licencing agreement with RSPCA Australia and that entitles them to actually market those products as RSPCA Approved. So those fees from licensees are quarantined and they you they used for the approved farming scheme, they need to channel back into assessment costs. It is a costly exercise for us to go to farm as often as we do during the course of the year. Some of these farms aren't easily accessible and they're all over the country. So those fees need to make sure that that are out of pocket expenses are covered for assessing. They also contribute to the review of the standards so the standards get reviewed every five years and that's an opportunity for us to review the science review what's happening commercially in Australia again raise the bar where we can make that incremental improvement to animal welfare, and also contribute to the marketing of the scheme and making sure consumers understand what the approved farming scheme is all about.
Brian: And approved farming scheme logo is very recognisable these days. Woolworths and Coles both use it for their higher welfare product. You've seen a big uptake on that and an understanding amongst consumers about what that mark means.
Hope: So yeah, I mean, you know, with the scheme starting a couple of decades ago now, probably over the last five to 10 years, we have seen more of a shift and more interest in this connection between paddock to plate and people wanting to know more about where their food comes from. I think there's also this kind of minefield of labels and consumers not being too sure about what those claims mean. So consumers are wanting to pick up a product and know that it ticks the box for animal welfare. And you know it's core to the RSPCA's role in Australia around our focus on improving welfare whether it be for cats and dogs or indeed for farm animals and the work we do in this space. So we've had major retailers in Australia adopt our standards, Coles have been a long time supporter of RSPCA approved standards across multiple products. They were the first retailer in Australia to take on board and meet chicken standards, and have all of their own private label meat chicken switch to be RSPCA Approved, Woolworths followed. And so between those two, it has made an enormous difference to the plight of meat chickens in Australia. And we're seeing that on the ground today with you know, millions of meat chickens found a better lot better, better standards.
Brian: And the reduced stocking densities and they have perches and better litter management, that sort of thing. And we're not just talking free range?
Hope: Yeah. So under the RSPCA standards across the different species we have, you know, we think you can have good welfare in different housing environments. So free range is essentially a marketing term. It's, it doesn't necessarily mean good welfare, you can have some really good free range systems, and you can have some ones that you probably have some ways to improve. So we think you can farm animals in an indoor environment. But really, it's about what does that indoor environment look like? Does it cater for those animal’s needs? In the case of meat chickens, the vast majority of meat chickens in Australia are farmed indoors. And, you know, we're proud to say we do work with a large number of Australian farms now that that farm to the RSPCA’s meat chicken standards. And yeah, there's a whole host of factors that they need to have good welfare. So one is stocking density. Better light, so encouraging birds to be more active and move more often in the shed, perching is really important. So that helps develop, you know, leg strength, muscle density, it helps birds to be more active. And, you know, now that under the RSPCA standards, there are a perches inside of a chicken shed it's not surprising that meat chickens like to perch so that's, you know, been a really, I guess, simple measure that is catering for those birds, you know, natural needs.
Hope: And it's, as you say, it's very simple and practical and but there's millions of these individual animals now who are having a better life in in those situations.
Hope: Yeah, and look, I guess, yeah, adding a perch to meat chicken sheds. It does sound very simple, but there are also complexities there. So the type of perching, we work with some very large scale farming systems. The objective of the scheme is have as many animals farm to, to the standards as possible. So they're not nice boutique farming enterprises. And to allow for the type of perching and the amount of perching that we will require. Sometimes it does take a lot of work in planning and working out how that's going to be achieved in the types of shed structures. So perching is one thing, a really important thing for the welfare of meat chickens is actually what their flooring is. So the we call it litter. And the litter might be made up of rice shavings, wood shavings, different sort of substrates, and it's really important that that litter is kept in a really good condition because it can lead to a whole host of other welfare issues. So when birds are sitting in litter that isn't well kept, it can lead to things like breast blisters and hock burns. More ammonia in the shed so it can lead to respiratory issues and blindness. So, I guess yeah, the heart of the standards is really a holistic approach to improving their welfare.
Brian: And you mentioned before about farmed Atlantic salmon, that's a that's a new area of the standards there that it might make people sit up to think that there's a standard for farming fish.
Hope: Yeah, yeah, I think, look, historically, the RSPCA probably hasn't spent a lot of time talking about fish welfare. But we certainly know you know, the science indicates that fish feel pain. And the farmed fish industry is a growing industry in Australia, consumption of salmon is growing. And, you know, there we recognise that, again, coming back to what the scheme about is about it's looking at ways to improve welfare for multiple species. So we developed farmed Atlantic salmon standards, and some of those, I guess, key elements to those standards relate to water quality oxygen levels, you know, making sure the fish can again, exhibit those natural behaviours, so natural schooling behaviours, and then, you know, handling of the fish. You know, I was really surprised to learn of the lifecycle of farmed Atlantic salmon, they actually live for about three years and quite different to some of the other species that we've worked with. So, it's been a really interesting journey, sort of understanding more about production and how we can improve welfare of farmed fish in Australia.
Brian: And are there other plans to develop standards for other species?
Hope: Yeah, look, I think we, you know, we're doing our best at focusing on the six species that we have. So we have the standards themselves, and then we have the compliance programme that that you know, underpins farming to those standards. So a really important element of the approved farming scheme is going to farm as often as we can. So we go to farm at a minimum twice a year to assess against those standards, and we have assessors In the field across the country, you're visiting farms today to assess against them. So it's a really big job. But we think, because of the lifecycle of animals and how many animals are farmed, it's really important that we see them as often as we can. We may, or we may look at some other species in time, we've certainly had interests from some other sectors such as the beef and sheep meat industry. They have more extensive production systems. However, there's still, you know, certainly some animal welfare concerns and things that we could address there. So yeah, I think it's watch this space.
Brian: Yeah. As you say it's a big job just to make sure that the compliance and the assessment is done, because that's what gives the consumers confidence that what they're seeing in the products in the supermarket has been covered and assessed all the way through the production process.
Hope: Yeah, and, you know, for meat chickens as an example. You know meat chickens in Australia live relatively short lives, so sort of around 35 to 40 days. So on an average meat chicken farm over the course of a year, there might be six batches of birds in those sheds. So we really want to see as many I guess cycles as we can and flocks placed and assessed against the standards and yeah, you know, I guess a key aspect of the approved farming scheme is that trying to get to assess against those standards on farmers as much as we practically can.
Brian: And as you say that it's a really big job because there's a lot of chicken eaten in Australia that's the most consumed meats in Australia these days. Is that right?
Hope: Yeah, I think it's around 45 kilos a person and rising so that that are that that is a lot of, of meat chickens farmed in Australia each year to supply that that consumer demand
Brian: And you assess them. You're saying at least twice a year to get more in the first year. And there’s spot checks as well?
Hope: Yeah. So our compliance programme is we assess all meat chicken farms or all poultry farms actually under the scheme four times in the first 12 months. If compliance is tracking along well, that might get reduced down to twice a year in subsequent years. And then yeah, we may also do some unscheduled assessments in addition to those routine ones. We also have data coming through so we require some reporting back to our team. We have assessors out in the field assessing against those standards and visiting those farms to meet that, that assessment schedule. And then we have a small team of compliance officers that that work in our office and essentially are another level of technical review. So they also look at some of those farm reports to monitor that the standards are being met.
Brian: There are some that say you’re working with these farmers to encourage meat consumption and say why is RSPCA involved in this side of things, but it really is a pragmatic approach to what's actually happening now and farming is happening. So you need to jump in and make sure it's well try and raise the standards where possible. Is that the outlook that you guys take?
Hope: Yeah, I mean, the RSPCA view is while animals farm for food or fibre, we have a role to play to improve their welfare. So we're not advocating for people to consume meat or eggs. However, if they do, we want people to make a more humane choice and you know, to vote with their wallet and pick up you know, cage free eggs or caged eggs and to go even better than that to pick up an RSPCA approved product to be sure that it ticks the box for animal welfare.
Brian: And seeing the approved farming scheme symbol on not just in the supermarket but places like Grill’d and other restaurant chain so it seems to be making quite an impact and be regarded quite well by consumers.
Hope: I think you know, in light of quite a confusing landscape of food labels labelling terms, people will not quite sure what this means, you know, the RSPCA Approved logo does convey to consumers that this is a programme focused on improving farm animal welfare. We're not claiming to, I guess, be a programme focused on environmental conditions or health conditions. We see our remit as animal welfare, and that's at the crux of the standards. So yeah, we you know, we've had early adoption of the standards from retailers in Australia. And you know, it's really great to see that that's now spreading, you know, into food service and people, you know, can pick up an RSPCA Approved product when they're shopping, but also when they're eating out.
Brian: It seems to be a really growing area that people are taking interest in and as you say, it's all focused on animal welfare. It's not an organic farming assessment scheme or anything like that?
Hope: Yeah, I mean, organic essentially relates to what the animals are fed. So no, the under the approved farming scheme standards, it's not a requirement that feed is organic, depending on what organic standards you were you're meeting and, you know, animal welfare, plays into some of those independent organic standards more so than others. Really it's about creating a farming system that allows for animals to express their natural behaviours and monitoring those farming systems as often as we can.
Brian: You were saying before about so many labels to wade through and understand in the supermarket's these days is that there's a lot of, I guess, misinformation or some myths around how farming practices are done these days in Australia like around you know, growth hormones or antibiotics, things like that. Can you tell us a bit about those myths and maybe debunk a couple of them and then where the approved farming scheme sits on that?
Hope: Sure, so yeah there it is a bit of a minefield with some of those labels and I can completely understand sort of perplexed looks in the egg aisle, which one should I buy, I think a really simple one for meat chickens is people's views that hormones are used in the meat chicken industry which they haven't been used in Australia for, I think more than 40 years so it doesn't help to continually see hormone free on packets of meat chicken nor does it help to see cage free on packets of meat chicken. Another myth that you know people might not be aware that you know, meat chickens in Australia aren't farmed in cages, very different however, to layer hens, layer hens that produce eggs there’s still 11 million hens in cages, however they are they're not the chickens that are also grown out for their meat. So you know I can completely understand confusion around labelling and in terms of how it relates to the approved farming scheme. We don't necessarily have a focus on, I guess labelling production systems. So we have indoor standards. And what we make sure is if products are farmed to our indoor standards, that it's clear that they're farmed inside sheds and products, we'll talk about that. If they're farmed to outdoor standards, then those products could be labelled as free range. And there are particular requirements under our standards that those animals have to have in that outdoor environment. We don't necessarily think one is better than the other what we you know, we approach this as animals need these key things to have a better quality of life and they can be achieved in different production systems. In terms of other labels, there is more talk amongst consumers and also the farming industry around antibiotic use. And what we'd really like to see and part of the RSPCA Approved standards is having a plan around reducing antibiotic use. So we refer to that as an antimicrobial stewardship plan. And what we want to say is more farming industries look at how they can improve the health of birds without a reliance on in feed antibiotics. There are a lot of discussions around, you know, do those antibiotics go into the, you know, human food chain when products consumed. And it's not necessarily the case in Australia because there are withdrawal periods or withholding periods where they you know, they don't enter the human food chain. However, I think there is something to be explored around well, what's the housing system, and that I guess, holistic approach to better farming that can lead to health improvements and less over reliance on in feed antibiotics.
Brian: So when you say in feed antibiotics that's just giving antibiotics to the whole flock.
Hope: Yeah, so there might be particular types of antibiotics that are fed to the birds in their feed, that might prevent certain illnesses. So I guess they, they could be used as more of a preventative measure. And what we'd like to see is obviously if birds become ill then you know that therapeutic use of antibiotics is important to make sure that the birds don't continue to be sick, as opposed to routinely feeding antibiotics which, yeah, we'd certainly like to see a reduction of that and to look at, well, what are some of the ways that that flock could be improved through the actual housing conditions and stockpersonship? of those birds?
Brian: The growth hormones haven't been used in chickens for 40 years or so they use anywhere else in the industry?
Hope: Yeah, so it is yeah, a bit of a myth that growth hormones are easy in the meat chicken industry. They're not, and but you know, hormones may be used in in other species, for example, they might be used in the beef cattle industry. I guess from the RSPCA position. It's not necessarily an area of focus from a welfare perspective. So while there may be some concerns around a, you know, a reliance of hormones, you know, our concern is focused on, you know, what are the, I guess housing conditions and husbandry conditions that those animals are farmed to and, and looking at practical ways to, to improve, improve standards on farm and a better quality of life for those animals.
Brian: So you develop these standards, you said you review them every five years and you implement it, you must work very closely with the farmers on introducing standards or making standards that they can implement within a within their own system.
Hope: Yeah, so reviewing the standards is, you know, it's a really important exercise not only to improve animal welfare, but also to understand what's happening on the ground and what might be achievable in Australia today. So the consultation processes is pretty extensive. You know, you can imagine, you know, with a number of different farmers meeting the standards on the ground today, they would want to know yeah, well what's around the corner tomorrow. So that consultation process can really take some time stakeholders, a variety of stakeholders are involved from I guess animal welfare science to peak industry bodies to companies that might process chicken to the growers on the ground that actually farm to those standards. And, you know that yeah, it's a lengthy process, but a really important one for us to actually raise the bar and look at that incremental improvement and what we can sustain over time to make sure that you know, it's there's a tipping point there's, it's important to raise the bar, and continue on that animal welfare journey, but not to the detriment of having animals under the scheme because, you know, we don't want farmers and producers to drop out and not be able to farm to the standards anymore. So it's a bit of a balancing act. And yeah, science team at RSPCA Australia works through that standards review process, and then when the standards finish and ready for, you know, in their final form, they'll go out to industry and we'll communicate those to industry and, you know, give people the timeframes of when we expect those standards to be implemented.
Brian: I guess in a way you can support the farmers that they want to farm to a high standard and differentiate their product, I guess on that?
Hope: Yeah. And we you know, we've had the scheme for a couple of decades now. And you know, we've had some really early adopters of better farming standards so you know, some of the layer hen producers we've worked with for well over a decade, probably quite ahead of their time in terms of recognising a space for better welfare and wanting to meet an independent standard, you know, that does come at a cost so you know, there's less birds their farming but there's greater production inputs of having to meet the standards, and yet, take my hat off to farmers out there that are going above and beyond what they need to do to meet their basic requirements. So we have a whole host of farmers across the country that that farm to our standards that are farming different species, whether it be from farmed Atlantic salmon to, to meat, chickens. And yeah, we work really closely with them to keep encouraging them and ultimately to, you know, to find a market as well for them for consumers that want to support their product.
Brian: It sounds like a great system to improve the lives of well, as you said, nearly billion 1.6 billion farm animals have been have had had their lives improved by these standards so that that must feel good to know that in some areas things are changing for the better.
Hope: It does feel really good at you know, sometimes yeah, reflecting back on where we've where we've come from, and particularly in the last five to 10 years the uptake of the standards from industry and farmers on the ground and then also retailers brands and ultimately consumers wanting to support the product. It's a good place for animal welfare in Australia, and I think it can only get better.
Brian: Well, thanks, Hope. Thanks for taking us through the details of the RSPCA approved farming scheme. And thank you for listening. If you'd like any more information about today's topic, you could visit the RSPCA approved website at our rspcaapproved.org.au. Or you can also subscribe to this podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website, rspca.org.au or all the usual podcast suspects. I am Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time. On the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.