Do Quality Assurance Schemes Need More Transparency?

“Most farms are only 100% compliant on the day of an inspection” dismissively jokes Dave. Dave is a seasoned farmer well aware of the sea of paperwork that is required for inspections. Historically their farm was arable land, but in the past few decades they have shifted to a more diversified production model, now they also grow chickens and house free-range layers. Poultry presented an opportunity and offered a year-round predictable income, something the family didn’t have before. Today their family farm produces 4 sheds of broilers for a major British producer and has a contract for free-range eggs with a large supermarket chain. But upon entering the poultry business Dave and his father found out just how much paperwork is involved in complying with poultry welfare standards. Although poultry is an entirely self-regulated industry, picking a scheme and complying with it is as vital as breathing.

little chicks at a farm
Image by bearfotos on Freepik

After years of complying with a scheme and talking to other farmers, Dave is confident that welfare is a pretence and schemes are just trying to make his life more difficult. Most of the farmers he knows don’t follow welfare commitments to the T, they do just enough to pass inspections by their chosen scheme, sometimes only a few days before an inspection. Some of the farms he knows have less feather coverage, have a bigger podo problem, on paper they are identical to his own though, and that’s another reason why Dave disregards any positive impact a scheme might have in the market. Dave isn’t the first farmer I meet who thinks welfare is a cost, even an unnecessary, redundant cost. There are several aspects to this issue, at least the way I see it.

What is Wrong with Poultry Welfare Today?

First aspect – the schemes and the government aren’t doing their best to inform the farmers why animal welfare is not just an overhead cost, it is in fact a massive investment into the quality of the produce and into the productivity of their business. Scientific studies conclude without any shadow of a doubt that higher welfare means lower mortality, better FCR, higher feather coverage, decreased pecking, increased natural behaviours all contributing to a higher quality product, that can fetch a higher price. Why is the farmer being told “the consumer wants high welfare chickens” and then being buried under tons of paperwork (potentially brewing resentment between chicken consumer and chicken producer), when we could be telling the farmer “this is a good idea for your business” and showing them the direct link between welfare and productivity? The stigma of higher costs associated with welfare and sophisticated AgTech equipment should be dissipated by showing the farmer just how much bigger their profit margins would be, how much better their product would be. Seemingly not much is done in this regard, and it is a shame, because in this scenario everyone is a loser. The farmer has lower profit margins, the schemes put their logo on a product that isn’t the best it could be, the consumers trust a promise of quality that isn’t met.

rooster with hens in the background
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Second aspect – if the farmers don’t believe in ensuring the highest welfare standards, then they will spend less labour and money on welfare, they will tick the necessary requirements off a list, prepare all the paperwork and they will provide a compliant farm on the day of the inspection. What happens between inspections? In our digital age the consumer expects 24/7 accountability and the producer expects less paperwork. Our company makes a continuous welfare monitoring solution, and we know we aren’t the only ones in the market. Surely if the solution is readily available, schemes should at least try to monitor the farms to see how compliant they actually are.

Third aspect – it’s not long until consumers lose faith in schemes and quality assurance. It will only take a few high-profile investigations. Let’s face it, all animal produce is under immense scrutiny, there’s plenty highly motivated people who would love nothing more than to sneak into a shed at night and expose what they find to the world. Unless quality assurance schemes provide 24/7 monitoring and indisputable evidence of high welfare standards being adhered to at all times, then the industry will continue to suffer from bad press and attacks.

The industry needs to make a step towards its consumer.

Which leads me to my fourth aspect – on Back British Farming Day I noticed that pig and poultry is notably absent from the feelgood NFU video showcasing a diverse selection of farmers. There is one shot with a lady holding egg crates. Where are the broilers, where are the pig barns? I’ve heard it all before “the consumer wants to see bucolic bliss; they don’t want to see intensive poultry units”, and that may be true, but also more than half of meat consumed in the UK is chicken. Chicken produced in an intensive poultry unit. Maybe it is time for poultry to reconnect with its consumer? To show a degree of transparency and responsibility? If the consumer looks at intensive poultry units and makes a choice towards slower-growing breeds, BCC, free-range, organic and others, then that will be the market of tomorrow. Farmers are constantly being told by retail how they need to meet the demands of the consumer, but farmers and consumers are discouraged from communicating with each other. In the era of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok it’s so easy to reach out and establish a direct dialogue, so why aren’t we doing just that?

a chicken walking in a field
Image by wirestock on Freepik

Transparency in Poultry Industry: a Path Forward?

But not all hope is lost. Dave’s farm had our lighting installed a few years ago and they have so far enjoyed its performance. When we informed Dave that we released a new product line of poultry sensors we had some pre-existing goodwill to build upon, so even though Dave was initially sceptical, he trusted us enough to let us show him the numbers. We clipped our sensors onto his ALIS system and proceeded to explain how he can get alarms of abnormal levels and activity in the shed on his phone. We met again a few weeks later and Dave was a changed man. He saw the curve for one parameter slowly climb overnight only to normalize in the morning and took action by adjusting the settings on his ventilation. The wayward parameter stayed still overnight. It was a small thing, but it made an immediate difference to Dave’s chickens. “I can see they’re more active when I go and check on them… I never would’ve caught this error myself”.

Image by Freepik

To Dave “welfare” used to be a term thrown around by big companies to describe some provenance and paperwork, but now he sees what welfare should be – the health and productivity of his flock. The bigger question is why aren’t schemes using in-shed monitoring to quantify welfare? It only took Dave a few weeks to see the benefit of poultry sensors, he is more confident in his flock, and he knows exactly what happens with it at every moment in time. He takes pride in his work, he cares for his flock, today he is a step closer to being transparent with the consumer. He knows he has nothing to hide, and he can prove it with data. Can a scheme do the same?