“Customer Information: To support British farmers, the Government has advised that some free range hens and poultry in the UK must be temporarily kept indoors for their welfare.”
Blink and you’ll miss it, but a sign bearing these words can now be found tucked in the poultry aisle in Tesco on Market Street. At first glance, this seems reasonable, but free range poultry being kept indoors for their own welfare? Before we go any further, let me remind you that Tesco has a history of mislabeling their products, evident from their labelling products as coming from fake “British-sounding” farms or the horse meat scandal. Now, the corrupt corporate organisation is such a popular narrative that most people are willing to accept it without properly looking at the ramifications. But let’s take a closer look.
The government recently announced that its new measures are to protect against avian flu and in particular, a new strain called H5N8 which is spread from wild birds. By keeping birds indoors, the hope is that their contact with wild birds and by extension, with the virus, will be reduced. However, the WHO has noted that human infection with the virus ‘cannot be excluded although the likelihood is low’. So why am I talking about a bird influenza with no apparent impact on the average St Andrews student, so far removed from the production process? Well that is part of the issue.
What we don’t realise is that according to WHO, “the world may be on the brink of another pandemic.” They make an estimate of ‘2 million to 7.4 million deaths’. This pandemic is unlikely to be H5N8, but with each new outbreak, we are one step closer to breeding a super virus of sorts. The relationship between factory farms and the outbreak of flu epidemics is indisputable (ex. H1N1 swine flu). This relationship can be attributed to the cruel and unhygienic conditions we force our livestock to live in. Additionally, the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in factory farms has led to growing rates of antimicrobial resistance, which can then be transferred to humans through physical contact, food (we do eat these animals, let’s not forget) and the environment.
Tesco’s policy on antibiotics? Non-existent. They say they “encourage [their] producers to […] avoid the need to use antibiotic treatment unless the welfare of an animal is compromised.” The problem is, this still means plenty of antibiotics being consumed, and so it does nothing to prevent increased antimicrobial resistance.
This isn’t the only mind twister; relevant scientific literature has proven that infectious diseases are encouraged by stressful conditions of factory farms and they propose a free-range system as a solution. Yet, the government has done the opposite by suspending the free-range system in high-risk areas to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Clearly, we have no agreed upon solution and in the face of the pandemic WHO predicts, but there’s plenty that St Andrews students can do at a consumer level: let’s start with what we can do, at the consumer-level. When we see signs in Tesco saying free-range birds will no longer be free-range, questions should be asked and answered. A move away from factory farms and towards meat producers who do not promote ‘stressful’ conditions for animals would be a great place to start.
But there’s an even more effective approach we could take: vegetarianism. Of course, it’s complicated in St Andrews where there are so few places to get your groceries, but a few paces down from the poultry aisle in Tesco is the vegetable section, where there is guaranteed no risk of causing a worldwide pandemic. Supporting smaller businesses like Heart Space Whole Foods would be ideal, and they have a great selection of vegetarian / vegan products. So just go for it, once you try, you realise it’s actually not that hard.