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Setting a new benchmark for farm animal welfare

We interviewed Ruth Layton, Group Sustainability Director of Benchmark Holdings plc, who was awarded the BVA Chiron Award for her contributions to improving farm animal welfare within the supply chains of globally influential food brands

16 April 2018, at 3:59pm

How did you get to where you are today? 

I knew from a very early age that I wanted to do something with animals and I came to being a veterinary surgeon quickly. As soon as I qualified, I realised I was in the wrong place. It took me until I was 40 to find the right work; I didn’t want to treat sick animals, I wanted to help develop systems where animals didn’t get sick. 

I was among the first group to take the RCVS certificate and diploma in animal welfare, in 1996. I wrote to all the retailers, hoping to best make use of it, and eventually got some work with Tesco as a consultant. I was going to tell [Tesco’s] suppliers what to do and they were going to do it. Of course, it doesn’t work like that at all. But it started a process! 

Roland [Bonney], Malcolm [Pye] and I set up Benchmark Holdings in 2001, which was another step forward on that journey to having more influence. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to change the world overnight – it was going to take a lifetime and a lot more. Although things still move far too slowly for my liking, they do move. Things that would not seem possible, like cage-free eggs across the world, are starting to happen. 

What was the greatest lesson you learnt along the way? 

You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don’t know how to bring people with you, you can’t put it into action. My life for the best part of the last 10 years has been understanding people – how they work and how we can take them with us. And not being so ‘finger-waggy’ and judgemental about things, like I was in the early days of my career.

Should vets be doing more to improve animal welfare? 

That’s the oath we take. I don’t mind if we change the oath, but let’s live up to our oath. I used to take claws off dairy cows for farmers so they could get another six weeks’ milk out of them because I felt the pressure as a young veterinary surgeon. I wouldn’t even begin to do that now. People feel pressure to do things that go against their oath. There’s a tension between what we know we should be doing and what we end up doing on a day-to-day basis.

I’m really glad the veterinary profession has the BVA strategy on animal welfare. It gives people something to gather round. Let’s keep talking about it openly so people can voice their concerns. We’re not bad people feeling those pressures, we’re just human beings and the pressures can dissipate if we all talk about them. 

What are the most notable changes Benchmark has steered within big food brands? 

We’ve been working with McDonald’s for the best part of 20 years. We’d made a change with McDonald’s from caged to free range and thought ‘job done’. That was not the case; arguably, sometimes the conditions of free range birds can be worse than for cages. But the welfare potential is much better. The last 20 years have been about improving that. The good producers in the UK now have good systems that are operated really well. Another big change with McDonald’s was moving all their pig supply to RSPCA-Assured label. 

The big changes are around the areas of close confinement; I would say one of the biggest drivers at the moment is the antimicrobials resistance discussion. We have come under pressure as a veterinary profession because we are propping up some agriculture with antimicrobials. If you’ve got a system, for instance, where an animal needs antibiotics to see it through the weaning period, that tells you that the system is inherently flawed.

I think the biggest danger we’ve got in the UK is thinking we’re already the best in the world and we don’t need to do anything extra. There are systems all over the world that are brilliant – in many countries which we have found through our work. We’ve got baseline legislation in Europe that stops the worst, but it’s not always implemented

We’re moving to improving animal husbandry and genetics so that animals have better-developed immune systems and can look after themselves. 

What is the role of the vet in areas of welfare besides antimicrobial resistance? 

Things like getting animals out of crates and cages and not beak-trimming and tail-docking. As a profession, I’m afraid we don’t always stand up with our clients to support them out of those systems. 

The law in Europe states clearly that we shouldn’t be tail-docking pigs unless there is a good reason; we know how not to tail-dock pigs, but we often can’t do it in the current system. The system needs a fundamental change; it’s a different system that costs more money and a lot of people with the existing systems haven’t got enough land, or big enough buildings, or they don’t know the system – it would affect their livelihood. We need to help each other move. 

Will Brexit bring any opportunities for improving animal welfare? 

It’s entirely up to us. As a business, we’re treating it as an opportunity. I think the biggest danger we’ve got in the UK is thinking we’re already the best in the world and we don’t need to do anything extra. 

There are systems all over the world that are brilliant – in many countries which we have found through our work. We’ve got baseline legislation in Europe that stops the worst, but it’s not always implemented. 

Do you think there’s enough communication to the consumer? 

I think we can always improve that. One of the best pieces of work I’ve seen recently, which we’re involved in, is the ‘citizenshift’ – part of the New Citizenship Project.

Deep down in all of us, there’s a citizen rather than a consumer. Research shows, for example, that if you ask people ‘will you be willing to take a shorter shower?’ they might say no, but if you contextualise it in saving water, energy, and things like that, and talk to them as a citizen, the evidence shows we make different decisions. 

We’ve done a lot of work around language in our consultancy with our clients and it seems to be paying off.

Editor
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