Animal welfare: a new priority for Spanish shoppers?

Animal welfare in food production’s a difficult subject for me. On one hand it’s something I feel quite strongly about (it’s the reason I was a vegetarian for 4 years) but on the other I know it can make me a ponficating bore, and a hypocritical one at that. I’m guilty of not asking questions about the provenance of my pork trotters from time to time and I’ve eaten my share of dubiously-sourced bacon sandwiches. I’m also aware of how, even after all these years in Barcelona, my cultural background remains British, not Catalan; it’s still possible for me to overlook or misinterpret factors that shape local attitudes.

So I don’t want to get on my soapbox. The point of this post isn’t to hector or lecture. I know first-hand that shopping’s tough enough without having to interview every butcher and forensically scrutinise every label. And I’ve worked around farmers, food retailers and restauranteurs enough to know that ethical intentions sometimes take second place to survival, especially in these economically-challenging times.

And I know that some people simply aren’t interested in animal welfare. I’ve discussed the subject with those who have arrived at this position via religion, via cold logic, via pure economics and via the indifference engendered by 21st century information overload. I don’t agree, but I have no desire to argue my case again here. Nor do I want to engage those coming at the issue from the other direction: I’m not going to return to vegetarianism, turn vegan or move out of Spain altogether in protest because someone here once did something unspeakable to a donkey.

I’m writing here for those who broadly share my own position. Basically, that:

  • Meat produced according to high welfare standards tends to taste better
  • It’s better to buy this meat for both health and environmental reasons even if it means eating meat less often
  • By raising animals for meat in the first place we are responsible for giving them reasonably contented lives

I suggest that you read The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall if you want a more detailed case (or even if you don’t — it’s an outstanding book that I’ve bought at least 5 times now as a present for fellow foodies). Apart from his money, success, fame, charm and so on, Hugh and I have much in common, not least bad haircuts. I agree with the vast majority of what he’s written on the ethics of eating meat (and fish) so go and argue with him on his website if that’s your thing.

I can’t imagine Hugh having much luck in Spain or Catalonia. I’ve seen geographic origin, quality and price used as selling points for meat but never high welfare standards.  I know that the UK has its faults, and that plenty of farm animals live pretty grim lives there too, but there’s nothing (legal) as bad as, say, intensive Spanish suckling pig production and nothing in Spain along the lines of RSPCA freedom food awards and similarly well-meaning, if factious, schemes.

So I was suprised to see this leaflet in Bonpreu, my local Catalan supermarket. Their new ‘Animal wellbeing/Quality meat’ certification has even been reported in this article in La Vanguardia newspaper.

I like Bonpreu. As supermarkets go, it’s pretty good: small, lots of regional produce, helpful staff (at least in the branch near me) and it always has a selection of organic beef, free-range chicken, iberico pork and the like. I’m self-employed and have a family to feed: queuing for hours with the chattering iaias  in the local market or elbowing through the tourists in la Boqueria isn’t practical for me these days. Bonpreu, like Keisy (another Catalan mini-supermarket I visit weekly, with an excellent traditional butcher’s section) is a world away from hegemonic behemoths like ASDA/Wallmart/Tesco/Carrefour and I don’t feel too bad about shopping there. I support my local, independent bakers, greengrocers and fishmongers every week too but sometimes my time just runs out.

Even though Bonpreu is a fairly progressive sort of super, its decision to trumpet better-than-minimum animal welfare standards as a selling point, especially in the middle of an economic crisis and its attendant ruin and penury, raises questions.

Is Bonpreu alone? I’ve seen Keisy distribute leaflets showing their free-range iberico pigs and traditional poultry but that’s a pitch to the palate and not designed to prick one’s conscience.

Is anyone interested? It’ll be fascinating to see how long this lasts and if it’s effective for them.

Is this a smart move in business terms? There’s only so far you can go if you choose to compete on price and only so much you can do to improve service in a supermarket. By planting a flag in the territory of this previously unclaimed moral high ground, they may have staked out a competitive advantage.

Are the claims for real? This is an important issue. Bonpreu’s is a self-policed scheme. The decision that this label represents high standards is the supermarket’s alone, although Bonpreu says that it uses an independent assessor to check on its suppliers’ farms. With no real outside auditor, welfare claims will always be questionable. And while I genuinely commend Bonpreu on taking this step and highlighting welfare as an issue, I have some concerns.

In the promotional leaflet itself, the ‘high welfare’ beef is labelled as being born in Austria and slaughtered in Catalonia. Even if those cows are privately chauffeured here in short stages along the scenic route in their own luxury Winnebagos, I fail to see how moving them across half a continent equates with Bonpreu’s goal of “reducing tension and suffering during transport”.  There’s also the same vagueness about the differences between what’s free-range/outdoor-reared/just-kept-in-a-more-comfortable-cage that damages UK consumer confidence in food labelling. It would be good to see Bonpreu start off on the right foot with some unambiguous, detailed and categorised labels rather than just a catch-all fuzzy feelgood sticker.

It’s encouraging all the same. Well done, Bonpreu: now work to improve it. I’d be delighted, absolutely thrilled, if attention turned next to supermarket fish counters. Sustainability in Spanish fish-shopping habits is a major concern that needs urgent action and Bonpreu could make itself a class-leader if it seized the initiative. Spanish public interest in that subject is historically low too, but is the crisis changing attitudes to more things than money?

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