Food labelling should and can be simple but is often made to be quite confusing. Across food products there are so many different codes, labels and standards that it can be difficult to know what the label means for animal welfare. Labels may say ‘farm assured’, ‘locally sourced’, ‘farm fresh’ – but none of these really guarantee animals have been reared in higher welfare systems.
So here’s a quick guide of some of the things to look out for on your label:
Hens’ eggs (Grade A) must, by law, carry a stamp with a number indicating whether they have been produced in an organic, free-range, barn or cage system. The egg boxes must clearly state: 'eggs from caged hens', 'barn eggs' or 'free range'.
Any other grade of hens’ egg or other egg products (e.g. liquid egg and eggs as ingredients in other food products) are still not required to be labelled by law. Eggs laid by other species of poultry (e.g. ducks, quail or geese) are not required to be labelled either.
Country of Origin
Country of origin appears on the label of some food products. In the EU, it is a legal requirement to label beef and veal by the country where the animal was born, the country of fattening and the country of slaughter.
It is also a legal requirement to label the country of fattening and the country of slaughter on fresh or frozen meat from pigs, sheep and poultry.
It would be more helpful if the label also had to show the country where the animal was born, as is the case for beef and veal, it will indicate to some extent whether there has been long distance live animal transport, the length of the food chain and the number of different countries involved.
Quality Assurance Standards
Minimum standards for the protection of laying hens, meat chickens, pigs, and calves are set by EU legislation and certain EU member states, including the UK, have improved upon them in their national legislation. A framework of quality assurance standards should ensure these minimum requirements are maintained, offer protection for those animals that are not covered by legislation (for example turkeys, ducks, dairy cows, beef cattle and sheep), and in some cases ensure higher standards for welfare are provided.
Below are some examples of Quality Assurance standards in the UK and what they mean for animal welfare.
Soil Association is one of the organic standards which offer many welfare benefits exceeding standard industry practice, including prohibiting confinement systems, ensuring bedding and/or environmental enrichment, ensuring free-range access with shade and shelter, specifying stunning and slaughter practices and monitoring welfare through outcome measures. Again, we recommend you look out for this logo when shopping or eating out.
RPSCA Assured is the RSPCA's labelling and assurance scheme dedicated to improving welfare standards for farm animals. The standards offer a number of welfare benefits relative to standard industry practice and we recommend you look out for this logo when shopping or eating out. The scheme covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems and ensures that greater space, bedding and enrichment materials are provided. In addition, on-farm health and welfare monitoring is required and stunning and slaughter processes are specified. Encouragingly, RSPCA Assured has a reach of 30% of UK pig production and is looking to expand.
The Red Tractor scheme, run by Assured Food Standards, certifies the food was produced in Britain and to certain quality standards for food safety, hygiene, and the environment, and reflects standard industry practice in the UK. Some of the standards benefit animal welfare by going beyond minimum legislation, such as prohibiting castration of meat pigs, a slightly reduced stocking density for meat chickens and the requirement for on-farm health and welfare monitoring. However in some circumstances the standards inadequately reflect the legislation, such as provision for manipulable material for pigs, and do not address welfare issues not reflected in legislation, such as confinement of sows during farrowing and permanent housing and tethering of dairy cows.
The Lion Mark
The Lion Mark appears on eggs and ensures they meet food safety criteria. This standard guarantees the eggs were laid in Britain but generally only ensures minimum legislative requirements for animal welfare, so permits the use of 'enriched cages' for hens as well as barn and free-range systems.
In November 2019, a new higher welfare standard for British Lion barn eggs was introduced which prohibits the use of intensive systems, such as 'Combi cages', and includes additional welfare requirements above those legally required. This new standard applies to all converted and newly built barn units, with a derogation for existing units until 31st December 2025.
The Red tractor and Lion Mark schemes also offer free-range production, so their logos may appear on free-range meat and eggs.
We are campaigning for all products to be clearly and honestly labelled. Join us in calling on the Government to ensure all animal products show the system in which the animal lived.
- Find out more about assurance schemes and what they do for animal welfare by downloading our Compassionate Food Guide.
- Read our report of the full analysis of the main UK Quality assurance standards.
- Look out for our Good Farm Animal Welfare Award Winners.