Organisation - November 4, 2009

Is the Vleeswijzer a good initiative?

The Vleeswijzer brought out last week by animal rights organization Varkens in nood (Pigs in peril) is a kind of 'good meat guide' that scores meats and meat substitutes in terms of animal welfare and environment. The two are combined to determine the product's ranking.

Noelle Aarts, Communication Science chair group
'From a communication point of view, I think the Vleeswijzer tells a good story. This sort of communication medium mainly means something to people who already behave in a particular way, or are seriously planning to start doing so. The Vleeswijzer has communicative value as well, since it quite easily comes up in conversation. The papers are paying attention to it and people are talking about it. The cookery column of De Volkskrant immediately did something on meat substitutes.
'I've already heard reactions to the fact that some meat substitutes are also mentioned in the Vleeswijzer. That creates confusion and sometimes irritation. There are many other kinds of meat substitute, so why are they not assessed too?
'I do think it's good to look at animal welfare and environment together. There are contradictions between environmental friendliness and animal welfare. So the Vleeswijzer is a framework of criteria that helps the consumer to make an informed choice. In terms of content, there's plenty to quibble about in the Vleeswijzer of course. You can refute all sorts of things in it, and every expert has his own standpoint. But that doesn't help the consumer. If you take all those nuances into account it gets too complex and uncertain to be able to say anything about it. And that holds things back. The consumer needs some simple rules of thumb.'
Peter Kuikman, Alterra, co-author of the 2008 Wageningen UR report on Climate and Livestock  
'Good that this is happening. A guide like this gets consumers thinking and talking about food choices. I think the presentation could be better and I'd rather see separate lists for environment and welfare. One consumer is more concerned about environment, another about welfare. For example, in terms of environment there's very little difference between organic and regular meat, but organic meat is more animal-friendly.'
'I also think the distinction between high-scoring beef mince and low-scoring beef is tricky for consumers. That mince comes from dairy cows, so the emissions are assigned to the milk. The meat comes from bullocks that are partially fed with feed from overseas. And in the Netherlands, those bullocks are a by-product of the dairy industry; it's the same sector.  How is the consumer to weigh all this up? But the most crucial question is: is it just about production and consumption in the Netherlands? By no means all the food we eat comes from the Netherlands. This list deals with production conditions in the Netherlands, but the cattle in the Netherlands are not reared in the same way as in Ireland or in Argentina. The origin of meat has more impact than the distinction between organic and regular meat. Meat is traded on an international market, and the Vleeswijzer doesn't take that into account at all.'
Trudy Rood, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
'In the Vleeswijzer, the impacts of various kinds of meat on the greenhouse effect and on land use are calculated together. In the Milieubalans we kept them separate. The Vleeswijzer ranks the dairy product Valess higher than chicken, but it's really more subtle than that. Chicken takes up more space than Valess, but produces smaller amounts of greenhouse gases. Similarly, organic meat scores lower on land use than regular meat, because the animals need more space. But the climate score is better, because fewer chemicals are used.'
'At present, consumer advice on meat is provided by NGOs. We wonder if this isn't a job for government. That would make it easier to make sure the advice is produced in a transparent manner.In the UK and Sweden, the government is already doing this.'
Hans Hopster, lecturer in Animal Welfare at VHL; in 2007 he gave meats scores for animal welfare for a report by the Dutch Consumers' Association.
'The Vleeswijzer doesn't say anything different to the opinion of a group of experts in 2007. Already then, the Wageningen researchers and the Animal Rights organization took pretty much the same line on assessing welfare. It is true that the experts are always from the same research cluster, with access to the same information. Do these people then give an unbiassed judgement? That is a methodological problem really. Another tricky point is that when you assess the end product, you cut the animal production system into little pieces.  You can see that in the distinction between beef mince, which is scored high, and beef, which gets a bad press. If you look at the production system as a whole, you get a better and more subtle image.'
'Another thing is that I think the presentation is confusing. If the environment is important to you, you should eat chicken. From the animal welfare point of view, you'd better eat beef. I am not sure whether consumers will pick that up from the list. I would have preferred to see two lists, one for welfare and one for environment.'
Han Swinkels, manager of the Animal sectors of agricultural organization ZLTO
'We are positive about initiatives that aim to improve the sustainability of animal husbandry by influencing consumer behaviour. Livestock keepers want to invest in environment and welfare, but they need to be able to recoup the extra costs via the consumer. So awareness-raising among consumers is important.'
'I do think the presentation of the Vleeswijzer is confusing. I get the impression that animal welfare was the main issue, and environment was secondary. It would be better to give welfare and environment different colours. Chicken and veal score well on environment, but the list makes it look as though they are in a red danger zone. I also really wonder whether you help the consumer by comparing organic beef with chicken. That's not a choice I can imagine a consumer making. You choose mince and then you want to know which kind of mince is the best. So I wonder whether this Vleeswijzer is going to work in practice, or whether you should see it more as a campaigning tool to get publicity.'