Know your labels
Food labelling should be simple but it is not. Virtually every product on the supermarket shelf has its own unique set of colour codes or logos claiming to be healthy or free from one harmful thing or another. It can be a minefield working out which product is healthier to buy and labelling for animal welfare is no different. In fact, some labels you will find on meat products are positively misleading!
What to beware of
The Red Tractor scheme, run by Assured Food Standards offers few welfare benefits compared with standard industry practice and generally only ensure compliance with minimum legislative requirements (the interpretation of which is considered inadequate in some cases).
The Lion Mark is important for food safety, ensuring your eggs are safe to eat, but generally only ensures compliance with minimum legislative requirements.
Both these schemes offer free-range production certification standards, so their logos may appear on free-range meat and eggs.
What do these labels mean?
- These food labels mostly ensure compliance with minimum legislative requirements for both standard and free-range production (in terms of animal welfare provision)
- Most, but not all, British meat, eggs and milk are certified to these standards
- The standards do little to prevent the serious welfare issues of confinement in cages, high stocking densities, fast-growing breeds and many mutilations
- Some of the standards do not enforce minimum legislative requirements adequately e.g prohibition of routine tail docking in pigs and the provision of appropriate manipulable material for pigs
- Some of the standards are higher than minimum legislative requirements e.g. castration of pigs is not allowed and sows have not been kept in stalls since 1999; maximum permissible stocking densities for broiler chickens are lower than both EU and national legislation.
Beware clever marketing
Beware terms like "Farm Fresh." They are nothing more than a marketing ploy and mean nothing in terms of animal welfare.
What to look for
Organic is a land-based farming system using no chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Animals have outdoor access and other higher welfare e.g. later weaning in pigs. There are currently nine different organisations who can give organic certification.
The Soil Association Organic Standard provides the highest welfare levels in the UK e.g. smaller flock sizes for chickens and no live exporting of dairy calves.
Freedom Food is the RSPCA's labelling and assurance scheme dedicated to improving welfare standards for farm animals. The scheme covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems and ensures that greater space and bedding material are provided.
Other stores might have their own standards which can go above other standards e.g. Waitrose and M&S whose basic level meat and poultry generally have a higher standard of welfare.
Stores such as Whole Foods Market have their own labelling system with a good base level and very high welfare at best e.g. no mutilations and very extensive free-range (see their standards brochure).
Animals have access to the outdoors for at least part of their life.There are EU regulations about what free-range means for laying hens and broilers (meat chickens) but there are no EU regulations for free-range pork and so pigs could be indoors for some of their lives.
If you are buying eggs look for organic, free-range, and if possible tree cover e.g. Sainsbury’s woodland eggs.
Chicken and turkey
If you are buying chicken meat look for organic, free-range, or if not these then good indoor chicken such as Freedom Food and higher welfare products e.g. Tesco Willow Farm Chicken.
Pork, ham, bacon
If you're buying pigmeat make sure the animal was born and reared outdoors. There are some good indoor systems for rearing pigs – look out for provision of bedding in the standards.
Beef and veal
If you're buying beef or veal buy British and especially British organic, look out for grass fed on the label.
Look out for organic, preferably Soil Association certified, milk, yogurt, cheese and butter. Otherwise, look for own-label dairy produce from supermarkets who have also stopped calf-exports such as M&S and Tesco.
Method of production labelling campaign
Together with RSPCA, Soil Association and World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), we have started work on a new campaign calling for honest labelling of the method of production on all meat and dairy products across Europe.