The food labels that keep you in the dark

11 February 2016

intensively farmed pigs with label saying '100% natural' & 'farm assured'


The labels on meat, egg and dairy products are often the only window we have on the life of the animal they came from – and yet, all too often, they don’t tell the truth. We explore the labelling confusion that’s keeping so many of us in the dark.

Imagine picking up a packet of sausages and on the label, instead of an image of happy pigs frolicking in fields, there was one showing them crammed into barren pens, biting in frustration at the bars that incarcerate them. Or imagine that the generic, feel-good phrases brandished across much factory-farmed food packaging – such as “farm fresh”, “traditional” and “all natural” – were replaced by something a little more honest, such as “raised in confinement” or “grown quickly, without sunlight or fresh air”.

Presenting the truth in this way would be a shocking, sickening revelation for most consumers, many of whom are – quite understandably – taken in by the power of suggestion that saturates so many food labels. Marketing techniques are clever at creating misleading visual and written cues that make shoppers feel, at a glance, as though they’re buying a fair, sustainable product. It’s nothing short of scandalous.

The big cover-up

As we all know, the truth about factory farming isn’t advertised on food labels because it is notoriously hard to swallow. Not only does the system often deprive farm animals of basic necessities, including daylight, fresh air, space and the opportunity to perform natural behaviours, but stress, lameness and disease are also rife in these dismal places.

Currently, more than 80% of the animals raised in the EU each year are raised in this way, although you wouldn’t know it from food labels. And that’s because brutal and barbaric just wouldn’t shift stock in the same way pastoral and picturesque does.

Consumer confusion

Only last weekend, an article in The Times exposed the issue of misleading food labels. It reported that when Bernard Matthews and Tesco were asked why some of their factory-farmed products came adorned with images of idyllic farm life, both insisted the images were not designed to represent how the animals in question lived.

Put simply, companies are willingly, perhaps even deliberately, baffling shoppers into believing the fairy-tale story on their labels, because it suits them to keep people in the dark about the harsh reality of where much of their food really comes from.

Labelling matters

And that’s why Compassion in World Farming, in collaboration with the Soil Association, Eurogroup for Animals and the RSPCA, is campaigning for more honest information on food labels. We know from experience that informing consumers of the realities of intensive food production can be an effective way of changing the system for the better.

Back in 2004, for example, we helped make “method of production” labelling a legal requirement on egg boxes in the EU. Since then, not only has cage-free egg farming soared across the continent – uptake went from 19.7% in 2003 to 42.2% in 2012, according to the Commission – but fast-food chains across the US have followed suit, making commitments to rid their supply chains of battery eggs in the near future. Progress.

What our Labelling Matters campaign aims to do is to make “method of production” labelling a legal requirement on all meat and dairy packaging, in the same way it is for eggs.

A fairer future

Dishonest food labels are inherently unfair – not only to the countless farm animals whose suffering they conceal, but also to the genuinely committed higher-welfare producers out there whose products often fail to stand out from the crowd.

As Ffinlo Costain, our Labelling Matters campaign manager, says:

“If labels are confusing it undermines the market for higher-welfare products. If animals are reared intensively indoors, labels should not display photos or pictures of rolling landscapes, cosy family farms, or cartoons of happy animals.”

Be picky and proud

Our advice to you is to aim for the highest available standards of animal welfare – free-range and organic. Failing that, look for labels that describe a higher-welfare indoor system and are backed by a recognised assurance mark, such as RSPCA Assured. Bear in mind that pork products labelled “outdoor bred” and ”outdoor reared”, though not as good as free-range and organic, do indicate better welfare than intensive indoor systems.<''>In other words, if you want to make life better for farm animals now and in the future, it’s time to be picky about your food – and proud of it!


Have you donated to our Labelling Matters campaign yet? If not, we need your help!


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