Ready, steady, Gove

Posted on March 22, 2019 by Simon Doherty

Welfare at slaughter has always been one of the most sensitive and complex areas in our portfolio of campaigning priorities, but it’s also one that has huge and wide-ranging professional, public and political support.  Vets recognise that banning or at least reducing levels of non-stun slaughter would make a huge difference to the welfare of millions of animals in one fell swoop. Consumers want to be able to make more informed choices about the meat that they buy and eat.  And parliamentarians recognise the importance – especially at this point in time - of the UK being seen to be leading from the front when it comes to animal welfare standards.

Calling for a ban on non-stun slaughter, as well as further asks on ending the export of non-stun meat from the UK and around clearer labelling within the UK, is a longstanding priority for BVA. The start of 2019 has seen renewed momentum thanks to a joint letter to Michael Gove on the back of an #endnonstun public engagement campaign with the RSPCA. We were delighted to receive a swift response from the Secretary of State, requesting a meeting – it really goes to show what can be achieved when you push on an area that has significant public and cross-party strength of feeling behind it.

Animal welfare standards

When we met with the RSPCA just ahead of our audience with the man himself, we were on the same page about our tactics.  While pushing for a total ban on non-stun slaughter is our overarching longer-term aim, we agreed that this was a more suitable forum for discussing the interim asks in detail. Defra has made no secret about wanting to explore how to maintain and even improve on animal welfare standards after the UK leaves the EU. Here was a golden opportunity to set out what that might look like in the context of a big priority area.

Exports were high on our agenda at the meeting.  Just over a month ago we finally saw the release of Food Standards Agency statistics setting out how animals are slaughtered and how pre-stunned and non-stun meat is distributed. I told the Secretary of State how concerned we were to see that nearly a quarter of non-stun sheep meat is being exported outside the UK, when we believe that the derogation to law should only allow for supply to meet domestic demand.

I also mentioned how complex and inconsistent much of this data was; slaughterhouses are not required to respond on every point, meaning that nearly 20 per cent of sheep meat is being sent to “destinations unknown”. He seemed receptive to the suggestion that Defra should lead the way on a cross-government approach to addressing this complex area and ensuring that animal welfare is at the heart of considerations in the months ahead.

RSPCA discussions on labelling

The RSPCA led discussions on labelling; we know that the Government is looking at options for strengthening this, and surveys in both the UK and EU have shown a significant public appetite for knowing more about the provenance of the meat they buy. We also briefed Mr Gove on BVA’s #ChooseAssured campaign, highlighting that by choosing farm assured products, consumers are engaging with schemes that cover food produced to higher welfare standards, including pre-stunned meat. While there are different opinions about how this information should be presented, we feel encouraged that there will be movement on this important area in the months ahead, and we’re in a prime position to feed into these reforms.

We finished up by talking about advances in different stunning methods and exploring their acceptability: a topic which is going to be looked at in further detail as part of BVA’s Welfare at Slaughter Group, which also kicks off this week. This was the perfect point to highlight the huge amount of insight and expertise that vets have, and the paramount importance of involving the profession in ongoing conversations.

We came out of the meeting feeling positive and pleased to have managed to get through a very detailed agenda in the short time we had. What’s most important now is continuing to be part of the dialogue at senior political levels, building on our strong evidence base and enlisting even more public support.

Make a difference

This is a campaign where the veterinary profession has a huge contribution to make, and as ever we’re strongest when we all speak up on the issues that matter most to us. If you want to get behind this crucial campaign, please sign our joint petition with RSPCA (22,000 signatures to date and counting), write to your MP and share your support using the hashtag #endnonstun.

Simon Doherty

Written by Simon Doherty

BVA President

Simon Doherty is President of BVA. He is a past-president of the North of Ireland Veterinary Association and of the Northern Ireland Branch of BVA. Simon is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast and is a certified aquaculture vet. He is a trustee of livestock development charity, Send a Cow, and of the Animal Welfare Foundation. Simon Doherty became President of BVA in September 2018.