Communication is key to selling new methods

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Food produced from large-scale livestock farms would become more acceptable to consumers if farmers opened up about their methods of production, according to one of the UK’s biggest retailers.

Dr Chris Brown, Asda’s head of agriculture, said producers needed to make considerable effort to engage with the wider community about the systems they use and the high standards they meet.

Speaking at the British Society of Animal Science’s conference on large-scale livestock farming at the Roslin Institute, Brown said there was a risk that remaining silent suggested farmers had something to hide.

Failing to communicate with shoppers meant they did not understand about the high-tech and high welfare farming systems large-scale units invariably employed.

“My experience has been that opening up about how food is produced doesn’t mean the sky falls in,” he told delegates.

“We have to be very careful that we close ourselves off when we have nothing to be embarrassed about.”

While there was no definitive answer about which systems animals were better-off being reared in, Brown said being honest with consumers would dispel many of the myths around large-scale farming and help them make their own decisions when shopping.

“In the height of the free-range debate we put a web cam in a broiler shed,” he said. “We got a lot of interest, but no negative comment.

“What actually causes the most confusion is the words we use. I have taken people around farms and they have been surprised by what free-range really means.

“We have to be careful about the terminology we use but we shouldn’t be afraid of showing what we do.”

Michael Appleby, chief scientific adviser for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, conceded that big did not necessarily mean bad when it came to livestock production. But he urged caution over using science and technology to justify larger systems.

“With size tends to come a greater reliance on technology, which gives a greater vulnerability when things go wrong,” he said.

“You can claim to have a completely secure unit against disease, but if you do get disease then how badly does it go wrong in a larger system and how many animals would you have to kill?

“Many people take a narrow view on welfare an concentrate on health and production, but there are individual, on-farm issues which science can’t solve.”