One of the six values that lie at the heart of NHS is compassion: a commitment to “humanity and kindness.” According to its website, the NHS “searches for the things it can do, however small, to give comfort and relieve suffering… because we care”.
You might be surprised, then, to learn that the NHS serves food from animals reared in the most basic welfare conditions permitted in this country – and today MPs are due to debate the report, conducted by the RSPCA and the Campaign for Better Food in Hospitals, that uncovered this scandal.
The survey reveals that 71 per cent of all eggs served at hospitals across England come from battery caged hens while 56 per cent of hospitals don’t serve any free range eggs at all.
Hens raised in this way spend their entire lives trapped in barren, over crowded cages unable to spread their wings and denied the ability to express any of their natural behaviors.
Furthermore, 86 per cent of chicken and 80 per cent of pork served at these hospitals comes from farms that fail to meet the RSPCA's minimum standards.
The housing and rearing conditions of some animals in farms that do not meet this benchmark, while they comply with the law, would seem truly abysmal. Pregnant pigs are often confined in farrowing crates which are so restrictive they cannot turn around. Animals endure leg injuries from bare concrete or slatted floors with no straw or other bedding.
This report is shocking not least because it is in stark contrast to what consumers themselves are increasingly expressing concern about. Surveys that have quantified consumer attitudes towards farm animal welfare in recent years, have repeatedly demonstrated that nearly three quarters of UK consumers consistently rate animal welfare concerns as the single most important sustainability related food issue.
This trend is evidenced by the growth in sales of higher animal welfare products, borne out even during the recession, which indicates just how important this issue is for consumers. For example, over 70 per cent of UK consumers buy free-range eggs ‘always or often’ and the RSPCA reported that spending on Freedom Food pre-packed pork products increased by 64 per cent in 2010. So, if consumers are becoming ever more concerned with animal welfare in their choices, why then isn’t an institution like the NHS?
It may not be an ideal model of cost efficiency, either. Of course I appreciate the tight budgets that the NHS is operating under. But these foods are often no more expensive than caged sources - and by trying to source the cheapest food the NHS may inadvertently be subscribing to higher costs in the long run; after all, a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fats is among the factors that contribute towards people seeking healthcare in the first place. And Free range eggs have been shown to contain on average one third less cholesterol, one quarter less saturated fat, and higher levels of vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids.
More fundamentally, the NHS has an obligation to endorse and be seen to endorse nothing but the highest standards of compassion and care without discrimination. Serving these meals therefore undermines its own ethos - and risks public dissatisfaction and distrust.
To endanger the relationship between the NHS and the public would be hugely regrettable. Instead, the NHS should show it really is a caring service and ensure all its meals meet animal welfare standards, at the very least those of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food. While cage free conditions are far from perfect at least they do not entail the welfare disadvantages discussed earlier. Our health and the lives of millions of animals are at stake. Is better treatment really too much to ask?