Red Tractor Overview – Can it be Trusted?
Red Tractor is the largest food assurance scheme in Britain, that supposedly ‘promotes and regulates food quality’. It is managed by the limited company Assured Food Standards (AFS) and is owned and funded by the British farming and food industry. In other words, Red Tractor is funded by farmers to promote their own products and consequently has a complete lack of independent scrutiny.
After numerous food scares thanks to poor animal farming, such as outbreaks of Salmonella and BSE, Red Tractor was formed in 2000 to ‘rebuild trust in British farming’. Red Tractor describes itself as a way for people to recognise ‘food and drink that has been produced to high quality standards across the whole length of the food chain – from farm to pack’ and for people to see that their food is ‘traceable, safe and farmed with care’. The scheme capitalises on the repeated lie that Britain has the best animal welfare standards in the world by boasting that it only labels food sourced from UK farms, as though that’s some sort of guarantee of good farming practices.
What the consumer is not told is that Red Tractor products only go very slightly beyond the bare minimum legal standards in order to receive the label. Far from being open or transparent, many of the practices allowed on Red Tractor farms would horrify people. Our exposés of Red Tractor farms have shown time and time again that the scheme does very little other than serve the interests of farmers’ pockets. Just because an animal is reared on British soil, it doesn’t mean they’ve lived a happy life.
Between 2019 and 2021, we have exposed 11 Red Tractor farms for their horrific conditions. Red Tractor used to ignore our calls to action until the pressure became too much thanks to public scrutiny, such as our success over Hogwood or a turkey farm supplying one of the largest poultry processors in the UK, Avara Foods. More recently, Red Tractor has started to suspend farms far more quickly – as was the case with Gravel turkey farm and Flat House pig farm. But the crucial point is that Red Tractor approves farms of an appallingly low standard. The scheme only takes action when their PR may be affected, not when animals are clearly in pain.
We have repeatedly exposed Red Tractor farms, showing the public just how low their ‘welfare standards’ truly are. These exposés have been seen by millions of people and we will continue to show the public the truth about where animal products really come from.
At the time of our investigations between 2017 and 2019, Hogwood was a Red Tractor-assured farm which supplied Tesco.
Throughout our multiple investigations, we found and reported on:
- Live cannibalism
- Sick and dying pigs abandoned in gangways
- Dead animals left to rot amongst the living
Despite Tesco’s attempts to reassure its customers that they take animal welfare ‘extremely seriously’ and that they expect producers to meet ‘stringent, industry-leading requirements’, the pain and suffering continued. In 2019 we placed hidden cameras inside the farm, for the first time, to test Tesco’s commitment. In response to the footage Viva! obtained, Red Tractor suspended their certification and Tesco finally dropped the farm with immediate effect.
In 2019, we investigated Gravel Farm. This intensive turkey farm produces over 33,000 birds a year for Avara Foods, and supplied Sainsbury’s at the time of our investigation. The farm was approved by Red Tractor until our investigation forced Red Tractor to carry out an inspection.
- Hidden cameras filmed one worker brutally killing birds with an inhumane neck crushing device
- Sick and injured birds left to die in overcrowded sheds with festering open wounds
- Dying birds found with devastatingly bloody wounds caused by other birds pecking out their feathers, which went untreated for a considerable time
In direct response to Viva!’s investigation, Red Tractor immediately terminated the farm’s membership of its scheme. Red Tractor and Viva! reported the farm to the Animal Plant and Health Agency on the basis of potential criminality. Following the termination, Red Tractor said:
“We were shocked to see the footage and the farm’s membership from our scheme has been terminated. High animal welfare standards are a top priority, and we take any breaches to these very seriously. We have reported Gravel Farm to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to investigate whether any legal action should be taken.”
In response to the move by Red Tractor, Sainsbury’s said in a statement:
“The welfare of our animals is extremely important and we’re investigating this report with our supplier.”
Avara Foods stated:
“We have high standards for bird welfare and, on initial review of the footage, we believe there are aspects that fall short and are unacceptable. We will continue to conduct a thorough investigation into all practices on this farm and take appropriate action as necessary.”
One year after our shocking investigation into Winterbrook Farm Partners, Calvesley Farm was ordered to cease operations and contractors began work to demolish the site. Both farms were part of the Red Tractor scheme and supplied Morrisons at the time of our investigation.
- Workers brutally killing young pigs
- Workers mutilating piglets
- Dead animals left out in the open, infringing the bare minimum hygiene standards
Once we exposed the conditions, Red Tractor launched an investigation and suspended the farms from their Red Tractor scheme. Amazingly, in response to the footage they claimed:
‘Protecting animal health and welfare is one of our top priorities’, seemingly unaware that they had so clearly neglected welfare by allowing such suffering to occur on one of their ‘assured’ farms, potentially for years.
It should never be down to charities like Viva! to investigate these farms for action to be taken, but the story has always been the same. Red Tractor only seems to act quickly when their PR is threatened, and somehow seem to miss the blatant cruelty in their once-a-year inspection of Red Tractor farms.
Red Tractor described itself as ‘appalled’ by the barbaric conditions we found on Flat House Farm, a Leicestershire pig unit which housed up to 8,000 pigs and 800 breeding sows. As a direct result of our investigation, Red Tractor terminated its membership with the farm. Our investigation exposed:
- Animals suffering from bleeding hernias, prolapses, deformed trotters, rectal strictures and pot bellies
- Dying and dead animals pulled into walkways, left to die from starvation, dehydration, their injuries or illness
- Feral cats picking off sick piglets, eating them alive
Red Tractor could not explain how it had not picked up on these blatant violations of animal welfare during its own inspections, leaving it once again to a charity like Viva! to expose the suffering and force Red Tractor to act. If we had not investigated this farm, thousands more pigs would have suffered such abhorrent conditions.
We investigated East Farm, Norfolk and two Gloucestershire-based farms, Clearwell and Strawberry Hill, and found shocking scenes of suffering and abject animal cruelty, all for the sake of a Christmas dinner.
East Farm is operated by UK poultry giant Gressingham, while Clearwell Farm and Strawberry Hill supply Avara Foods. As two of the UK’s biggest food producers, Gressingham and Avara Foods supply household names such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA, Morrisons and Ocado.
Across the farms, we exposed:
- Workings kicking turkeys as they forced them into crates
- Aggressive feather-pecking caused by the stressful environments and boredom
- Numerous turkeys suffering from broken wings and left untreated
A Red Tractor spokesperson said: “Protecting animal health and welfare is one of our top priorities and we take any allegations of breaches to our standards very seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the footage, we launched an immediate investigation to substantiate the claims and to review the behaviours seen. Corrective action was immediately taken on the workers identified in [the] film.”
We investigated three Red Tractor-assured chicken meat farms, contracted by Britain’s largest poultry producers – Avara Foods, Hook2Sisters and Moy Park – which supply major supermarkets and best-known brands, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and KFC.
Across the three producers’ farms, we found:
- Abnormally large birds dying of starvation or dehydration, too weak or lame to access food or water
- Birds suffering from painful hock burns as a result of the ammonia-rich litter
- Aggressive feather-pecking as a result of the stressful environment
A Red Tractor spokesperson said: “Protecting animal health and welfare is a top priority. As soon as we were made aware of the footage, an investigation was launched to substantiate whether they presented an accurate representation of the farms’ management and implementation of our standards. All sites were found to be well managed and compliant with our scheme standards.” In the face of hock burns, aggressive feather-pecking and birds dying from lack of water and food, Red Tractor somehow gave the farms a green tick and allowed them to carry on farming tens of thousands of animals in such abhorrent conditions.
We will continue to investigate farms and show the public the truth behind animal farming and that an animal has suffered abominably through their miserable, short lives; it does not matter if the animal was reared on a British farm with their flesh packaged up in a Red Tractor-assured label.
Even on the rare occasions when Red Tractor acts, all that it does is suspend the farm from the scheme or encourage the farmer to make some improvements by the time there’s another inspection. It’s never more than a light slap on the wrist – there are no fines, penalties, or prosecutions for farmers who treat their animals barbarically. If the farmer is suspended from the scheme, they’re still allowed to keep on farming animals in horrific conditions and can quietly re-join the scheme when the heat’s died down.
Red Tractor’s income comes from farmers paying to be on the scheme – if Red Tractor suspends farmers, it loses money. And if the scheme actually did penalise farmers, farmers wouldn’t want to join in the first place and again Red Tractor would lose money. It’s a terrible system which opens itself up to corruption and is designed to boost farmers’ profits, not to help animals. It’s left to animal protection groups, like Viva!, to show people the truth.
Red Tractor boasts that it has one annual inspection on all of its farms other than dairy, beef and lamb farms – they only receive one inspection every 18 months. It’s hard to imagine how one inspection every 12 or 18 months could possibly ensure anything close to good ‘welfare’ for these animals. Red Tractor’s website also says that farms under their scheme may be subject to random spot checks. In 2018, The Times revealed that only one in every 1,000 checks is unannounced, and Red Tractor’s website does not currently state whether that number is any different today.
To make matters worse, these inspections seem to focus more on paperwork than anything to do with animal welfare – staff may feign surprise or doubt whenever we expose the farms but they know exactly what kind of disgusting conditions they’re allowing and simply turn a blind eye.
A look at Red Tractor’s own website shows that it’s little more than a marketing ploy – the closest they get to talking about animal welfare is that ‘our animals have the right living space, food, and water and are healthy’. Red Tractor brags that its animals have access to food and water as two of its four key welfare points. This speaks volumes about how little they actually do for animals if providing two basic necessities for life is seen as something exemplary about the scheme. And if they mean the ‘right’ type of food, chickens can be fed on a monotonous, unhealthy diet of just corn, pigs can be fed the driest, blandest food, a far cry from the huge variety of things they’d dig up while rooting and calves and kids are given milk substitutes while we take all their mothers’ milk for ourselves. Red Tractor farms feed the animals but it’s certainly not the ‘right’ sort of food for these animals.
‘The right living space’ is also incredibly vague, allowing for cramped conditions, and our investigations have shown that many of the animals are unhealthy, such as cannibalism on pig farms or birds with barely any feathers left on them, slowly dying under broken legs.
The scheme does have some legislation which benefits the animals, such as prohibiting surgical and chemical castration of ‘meat pigs’ and the requirement for on-farm health and welfare monitoring, but it also allows for several practices which cause unjustifiable suffering for farmed animals. For example, in pig farming, Red Tractor allows farrowing crates – a gross assault on the welfare of mother sows and their piglets which imprisons a sow in a cage for around five weeks at a time, where she can’t even turn around. In fact, the Standards state that where a crate is used ‘the sow can stand up and lie down at full length, but excessive movement is prevented’.
Although Red Tractor states: “Pigs must have permanent access to environmental enrichment in order to satisfy their investigation and manipulation behavioural requirements”, the materials provided often fall short of being fit for purpose and can be considered an insult to pigs as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
Viva! investigated Poplar pig farm, near Hull, in 2015 where piglets were crammed together in the equivalent of battery cages, three tiers deep. The only ‘enrichment’ afforded to some of these pigs was a chain dangling from the wire mesh above. The farm was Red Tractor approved and supplied Morrisons supermarket. This investigation was reported in the Daily Mail. Elsewhere on the Red Tractor farm, Viva! documented farrowing crates, rotting piglets, ‘rape racks’ – narrow cages in which pigs are forcibly impregnated – and a pile of dirt or faeces in one corner crawling with flies and maggots.
The Red Tractor logo on dairy products signifies that the milk was produced in the UK on a farm that meets the standards of the Red Tractor Farm Assurance Dairy scheme. However, Red Tractor’s standards are the same as the UK’s bare minimum legal standards for cattle and nothing more! Calves can be kept in individual hutches for up to eight weeks of age, left without any company for a crucial part of their development and without their mothers. Red Tractor allows for all-year housing in zero-grazing systems, where cows don’t even see a blade of grass.
Viva! has also investigated three-month-old calves who were forced to live in hutches designed for eight-week-old calves, much too small for them among other atrocities such as emaciated, lame cows left to suffer in abominable conditions. Somehow, Red Tractor investigations did nothing to stop such cruelty on this farm, and our multiple investigations into dairy farms have shown that such neglect is typical of the assurance scheme.
Castration and disbudding – whereby the horns are prevented from growing with chemical use or hot irons – is allowed for sheep and goats. Pigs can have their tails cut and their teeth clipped or grinded down. Unwanted day old male chicks are gassed or ground up (macerated). Red Tractor adhere to the Humane Slaughter Association guidelines. Fast-growing breeds can also be used, which lead to severe health problems such as a bird’s skeleton collapsing and leaving the bird to die of dehydration or starvation because of broken legs. All of these terrible practices are given a green tick for Red Tractor approved farms. You have to wonder what Red Tractor wouldn’t approve of.
Similarly to the RSPCA, the Red Tractor scheme does not guarantee high welfare. It guarantees implementing a weak, ineffective law which does little more than the bare legal minimum for animals. Even then, our investigations have shown that’s not enforced in any way and animals are kept in absolutely atrocious conditions.
In other words, the Red Tractor is a sham label which means very little for animals.