VEGA News Item

Shouldn’t the RSPCA be advocating vegetarianism? - 25/02/2008
Yes! Yes! is the Answer. But Hasn’t the Matter been raised Before?...

The answer is Yes… and with Feeling. Read On!
Yes! Yes! is the Answer. But Hasn’t the Matter been raised Before?...

The answer is Yes… and with Feeling. Read On!

1. During the Christmas break the Independent ran an article by its Medical Correspondent, Jeremy Laurance, putting the question and implied answer to prepare for the launch of an RSPCA Campaign for a ban on the sale of factory-farmed birds in anticipation of Channel 4’s programs entitled the Big Food Fight, which “promise to expose the ‘hideous reality’ of animal production”. The series was fronted by the celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. By now it will have been seen by millions of viewers, and the points were well made; in particular, the £2 broiler-chicken at the supermarket drew a lot of concern, and they were well rehearsed by Jeremy Laurance; however, he made the observation “by all means let’s improve the lot of our chickens. But meat-eating is the real issue”.

2. Nor was this real issue pursued in the programs when they appeared on TV. And the RSPCA “is not ready to take on the wider issues”, Jeremy Laurance complained, for an anonymous spokeswoman had told him yesterday that there were other organisations campaigning for vegetarianism and the RSPCA was content to leave them to it. Our concern is with animal welfare and animal health”, she added, in haughty disdain for the views and campaigns of these “other organisations” and of Jeremy Laurance and a body of the RSPCA’s members and Council.

3. The following day (Friday, 04 January 2008), the Independent published a long letter on “the Utopian dream of a low meat diet” written with commendable expedition by the NFU’s Director of Communications but less of the cogency displayed in Jeremy Laurance’s remarks. VEGA had also responded urgently, particularly to support Jeremy Laurance and to overcome the feeble and unenterprising response had evinced from the RSPCA. It rudely dismissed views and advocacy expressed and voted on some months before at the 2007 AGM of the RSPCA to seize the opportunities implicit in Jeremy Laurance’s remarks and the willingness of these other organisations to share their intelligence and experience in an inspirational way, which has something the spokeswoman was obviously in need of.

4. After a few days of delays and prevarications the Independent rejected our rejoinder, declaring that it didn’t want a debate to develop involving “animal lobbyists” and the farmers. So much for the Independent’s readiness for debate! Our messages left on Jeremy Laurance’s desk have gone unanswered.

5. Let us put the record straight now. Our Research Adviser has attended many RSPCA AGMs as a member of the Society. He has tried to attract the RSPCA’s collaboration in a Green Plan for farming, food, health, and the land that would unite plow-to-plate initiatives in well-researched intentions in the production of cruelty-free foods. As the Research Section of the Vegetarian Society and with the support of the RSPCA VEGA had been heavily involved in the inception and early development of cruelty-free cosmetics and toiletries, which attracted international acclaim under the Beauty Without Cruelty banner and finally by the marketing acumen of the Roddicks and Body Shops. As the 21st Millennium began, the message of the Green Plan gained increasing urgency. By the beginning of 2008 medical, nutritional, environmental, welfare, and economic consideration combined into impressive testimony for Grow Food, not Feed farming policies and great gains in prevention of cruelty. Nearly a billion animals are slaughtered (and culled) each year in the UK in intensive agronomics unworthy of civilized life: just a 10% reduction of consumption of meat, dairy, and poultry would see over 8 million animals a year feasibly spared the evils of the factory-farming and killing that Ruth Harrison in her book Animal Machines had foreseen 40 years ago. This was prevention of cruelty on a scale that the RSPCA could not leave just to others but had to embrace, in collaboration with fellow-reformers, wholeheartedly.

6. Animal welfare organisations have been tardy in recognizing the challenges and opportunities that changes in the food market and world trade and the environmental consequences (which could include many zoonotic diseases and epidemics of human and non-human woe, accompanied by ever-increasing pressure to service a consistently provided source of cheap food, overriding the effects of the seasons and obscuring underlying ills under a cover of subsidies and grants now unequal to the task of ensuring a thrifty supply of food from worthy methods of production and management of resources).

7. It follows that VEGA’s interest in these matters and the relevant advice it can offer are available with new and reorganized government authorities such as the Food Standards Agency and DEFRA, as well as with NGOs with a record of involvement in the workings of the farming and food chain and the social consequences. The RSPCA should be a likely collaborator because its members and staff include a number who practise what they preach when they go shopping or when they are rescuing non-human animals suffering various misfortunes or abuse. The British Veterinary Association has its own Animal Welfare Foundation, where similar coalescence of aims and expression should prove useful to government agencies by means of open consultations and use of the VEGA database and scientific qualifications to avail other NGOs. In particular, these motivated constituencies should begin to muster discriminating well-informed and influential bodies of consumers exerting muscle in the food-markets.

8. The RSPCA is lucky in having in its ranks an appreciable population of consumers/customers who pay more than usual regard to official announcements dealing with health and eating plans, with religious, ethical and animal welfare and environmental factors firmly influencing their choices and example; and in recent years these official pronouncements have emphasized value in reducing consumption of animal-derived foods – to the extent that our present Minister of State at DEFRA, Hilary Benn, is a vegetarian. The RSPCA has the responsibility therefore to see dietary change as a salutary way to reduce the exploitation of animals in the production of food (and of clothing and footwear), and – where it functions as a corporate customer, as in the arrangements for functions – to set an example to other agencies such as the FSA, DEFRA, and the veterinary organisations in demanding appropriately high standards.

9. To some extent the Society has met these requirements with the Freedom Foods Scheme, which – although “monitored” – has not met the demands RSPCA members seek and is, like other marks and symbols incautiously awarded, not satisfactory and giving a false sense of progress. Very recent TV programs show how celebrity chefs have taken steps more enterprising than the RSPCA’s to tackle the welfare problems in the price of a broiler and to demonstrate practical example and advice, with a firm scientific background in agronomy, nutrition, and health issues while leading in the attainment of thrifty and pleasant lifestyles. Heavy shedding of the false values of High Standards of Living would follow unequivocally in a sturdier recognition of the Quality of Life.

10. VEGA’s association with the membership and activities of the RSPCA augured well for a partnership developing over the events, displays, conferences, and catering provided as part of its AGMs, recently held in midsummer in Kensington Town Hall, London, where unnecessary separations, and confusions were being created by running buffets for meat-eaters, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, and real cruelty-frees (vegans). After the AGM in 2006 the Council required the caterers to reduce the groups to 2 by making all the veggy-eaters cruelty-free. This should not have been a difficult innovations, but it was not deftly managed, so some of the vegetarians, “once bitter…” vowed to bring their own sandwiches or go out for a meal and thus lose some of the camaradie and networking that characterized the day’s events, especially for delegates who had caught trains leaving at about 5am and were unlucky to see their beds before midnight on the day of the meeting.

11. Members were therefore owed some more inspiration and better management for the 2007 meeting (as well as for what should be under serious consideration for this year’s event), so VEGA offered helpful advice and inspiration derived from meetings and conferences held in London in the first half of 2006, taking full advantage of the displays and catering offered for delegates attending popular conferences on nutrition and health and vaunting the RSPCA’s status as a serious entrant into the market for new developments in food. Success of the 2007 event was particularly important because Council had decided boldly to disdain the claims for its Freedom Foods Scheme and to cater entirely cruelty-free’s so the catering had better be good. After the 2006 meeting even staunch vegans were complaining that they doubted if the midday meal was worth staying for.

12. Completion of the changes in catering at official functions to full cruelty-free, with no confusing half-measures (such as of Freedom Foods standards) represents an application of joined-up farm-to-fork policies applicable to and inspiring all the RSPCA’s commendable welfare activities. It exhibits the spirit of social service and self-discipline that members seek to demonstrate in a well-researched and informed way.

13. VEGA could provide background information from its freely available database and Portfolio of eating plans to illustrate the decisions, and especially to furnish contacts among retailers, manufacturers, and health professionals. These sources were willing to supply samples and tastings of cruelty-free alternatives to meat and dairy at the event on tables to add material to the in-house exhibits.

14. A caterer of vegetarian cruelty-free foods, with experience at Kensington Town Hall was willing to handle the provision of tested meals at the AGM and for the rest of the day’s program of events. His recipe books could be on sale and he reckons he could provide the catering at a similar price to the previous and current year’s.

15. The opening a few days before the RSPCA’s AGM of the Fresh and Wild food and restaurant emporium in the former premises of Barkers department store in High Street Kensington, added a further treat for delegates to visit, shop, and eat with their friends after the AGM. The new venture, which shares interests with the RSPCA and “healthy” and environmentally-friendly food production, caters particularly for “green” and “organic” interests.

16. The new substantive initiative by the RSPCA needs explanation and a suitable introductory launch with representatives of the press and allied interests, as well as MPs, MEPs, and others with backgrounds in food policies. Saturday is not a good day for such events, but a meeting a few days before the AGM and conference, covered by a suitable embargo, should provide a useful introduction, with a “home team” of authoritative speakers and furnished with the full resources of the RSPCA’s press dept.

17. The stage was set for an enthusiastic and commendable AGM and conference. But no!. Every promising start was met with prevarications and delays. Alpro’s generous offer of a boxload of samples from the chiller was turned down – and this was of Alpro, leader of the dairy-frees with 8% year-on-year growth in supermarkets and health-food stores! Delegates arrived to the sight of bare table that could have been alive with new additions to the cruelty-free range.

18. However, nothing daunted, Angela Walder, a member of the Council and our Research Adviser, an ordinary member of the RSPCA, had come with a motion up for debate and voting that set forth the principles and development of the new initiatives. Jeremy Laurance’s article in the Independent followed some 6 months later and then another month or 2 later came the celebrity chefs’ onslaughts on the poultry-industry, which was also reeling – like the British pig-industry – with the rising costs of inputs for intensive farming for “cheap food” and agriculture growing feed, not food. Only this last week The Times (20 February 2008) “has learnt that at least 3 bidders “are putting the finishing touches on final bids “for Grampian, the biggest supplier of meat and poultry to Britain’s supermarkets and one of the country’s oldest food groups”, which is soon to “pass into foreign hands”. Grampian has been “forced into a sale after it became unable to service a mountain of debt”. The firm employs about 25,000 people and has run into trouble with unions over pay, pensions, and their use of agency staff”.

19. Vion, the privately-owned Dutch meat giant, which is Europe’s biggest, is on the list of possible bidders, along with Sadia of Brazil, one of the world’s largest suppliers of pork and poultry. HBOS, Grampian’s banker, has pushed the firm into sale, which could raise as much as £400 million. If Grampian still has pickings for asset strippers, its fate does not spell out great hopes for sustainable livestock farming in Britain. Talking up the firm’s attributes, one financier rates Grampian “a market leader and it sells a commodity product that is basically a life necessity. People will always eat chicken”. The RSPCA’s cruelty-free food policies must point to something better. We note that Vion includes meat alternatives and substitutes among its output.

20. “I approved last year’s AGM of the RSCPA gloomily”, reports Alan Long, Trustee and Research Adviser of VEGA. All our efforts at feeding enthusiasm and help in the RSPCA Council’s earnest at achieving “cruelty-free” status in the catering at this event, nourished with output from our team’s intelligence to add point and purpose, openly communicated to officials and worthies of the Society, had been engulfed in a treacle of prevarications and indifference. Last year’s catering had been off-putting and this year’s with stiffer standards to meet, had been left to the same caterers, the offer of a specialist with much more relevant experience having been ignored. The unutilized display tables, which could have been drawing attention to the latest advances in the cruelty-free, meat-free, and dairy-free markets bearing approved (by the Food Standards Agency) labelling and claims told of failure and neglect. “I mentioned this to a passing Council member, who I’d assumed to be a veggie. He could only complain of the damage VEGA had done to the RSPCA”.

21. Not a good start, then. We at VEGA can, however, remember the honour the indomitable McLibel pair Helen and Dave bestowed on us in acting for them with a few others offering expert advice and witness. When judgement came, we will never forget the result: McDonald’s had been guilty of culpable cruelty. Now we were trying to arouse the RSPCA into fervour for an almost unnoticed but potentially significant challenge its Council had stumbled into without even switching the lights on. However, there was more in hand.

22. The motion on the agenda, in the names of Angela Walder, a Council member, and me (Alan Long) was intended to explain and debate the increasing significance of animal welfare in the Green Planning of farming, food, health, and land and the importance of the discriminating, self-disciplined consumer/customer in creating a healthy pull, balancing a well-directed thrust from farmers and primary producers: Salutary Food from Salubrious Farming. The lunch had proved better than last year’s, the audience and not drifted away and Angela and held forth.

23. There were 4 speakers from the floor, all in favour of our motion – including a contribution from the Council member who had complained of the harm was doing to the Society! We won the day with a clear majority. This wins a clear sign of member’s wishes for a more trenchant policy, but Council can still reject the motion or continue with the prevarications. Members’ reservations surfaced over the Freedom Foods Scheme and some bad publicity, discredit, and inadequacy that the Society had been forced recently to acknowledge.

24. Our Research Adviser comments: “I returned home that evening with VEGA’s ideas for developments of the RSPCA’s initiatives in a day’s conference, probably at Kensington Library, joining up the strands in the broader agronomic, scientific, nutritional, and medical contexts, in which the common interests of all animals, human and non-human, would be embraced. The RSPCA must surely have the PR facilities to do this”. Accordingly, a VEGA plan and suggestions for stimulating speakers was in the hands of officials and members of the Council within a day or 2 after the AGM and vote. In the ensuing 7 or 8 months relevant events have followed thick and encouragingly fast, not least Jeremy Laurance’s (apparently independent) article (appropriately at the start of the New Year in the Independent, and the rush of full-page ads with holier-than-thou claims by supermarkets in attempts at concealing the enormity of the £2 oven-ready broiler and the dire effects on the poultry and pig industries, which are the most susceptible livestock enterprises to looming increases in feed prices. Even obscured by value-adding ploys to wean the relatively affluent customer away form the “economy” product, consumption should begin a salutary decline and demands on the non-human animals should lessen in preventions of cruelty on a scale unprecedented in the RSPCA’s history. The RSPCA should be able to assert a well-versed authority in research and development in cruelty-free eating plans, to which VEGA would gladly offer its help. We surmise that Jeremy Laurance article may have been prompted by debate at this year’s Oxford Farming conference at the start of the New Year. Hilary Benn, the vegetarian Minister of State, was involved.

25. Vets, NGOS and agencies and corporate procurement bodies for foods, as well as environmentalists, will hardly be able to overlook opportunities opened up by the RSPCA’s endeavours. The anti-hunting Acts and the latest Animal Welfare Acts have pitched the RSPCA into some disputations areas of rural affairs, and livestock farmers are reeling from losses of farm incomes, the price of land, and competition from imported foods and alternative enterprises, not to mention the scourges of zoonotic diseases and the ruinous costs of culls and break ups of family farms. They are impatient with the anomalies in the attitudes to badgers, particularly in intensive dairy-production, and with some of the antics of keepers of animals and collections unprepared for the commercial consequences in which they, like all hobby-farmers, are implicated however hard they pray or seek gifts from a well-meaning public with scant means of knowing a Holstein from a Hereford. Likewise, large rural areas are thinly “vetted” and farmers are reluctant to pay for call-outs: the vets find life easier and more profitable dealing with animals brought into the surgery rather than going out to a remote farm to deliver a calf deemed worthless and only suitable for early killing and adding to the fallen stock collection.

26. This is why we emphasize the need for education and understanding as well as personal self-discipline, in the course the RSPCA is setting with its corporate catering initiatives. The equivocations and delays, coming jeist at a time when the tide of reform and consumers’ desires for a decisive lead and example are deplorable and must shame the RSPCA’s Council. It must give stronger evidence by next year’s AGM of commitment to initiatives in preventing cruelty that need urgent reinforcement. VEGA will remain keen to offer help to that end.  


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