‘Red Tractor’, ‘Freedom Foods’, ‘Organic’…. all terms we’ve heard before. All welfare assurance labels. All designed to inform us about where our food comes from and how it was produced without having to spend too long scouring the small-print on the packet. But is it really that simple? The numerous different labels, codes and schemes standing for varying levels of welfare make it easy to forget, and sometimes even be completely wrong about what each of these labels actually mean.
First, you need to decipher which labels actually include high welfare in their definitions. This is easier said than done. Many labels say ‘locally sourced’ or ‘farm fresh’, but none of these bear any indication to animal welfare standards. Only quality assurance labels are designed with welfare in mind. But the confusion doesn’t end there – how are we to know the levels of animal welfare standards by looking at a logo on a packet. Clearly, the schemes need to distribute more information to us, the consumers, about what each of their labels stand for. This can be achieved through many different strategies such as leaflets/ posters in local supermarkets, or a re-brand of the label itself to emphasise exactly what it stands for.
So, what really differs between welfare labels? Although they all tell us that the minimum legal requirements for animal welfare were met, some of them say more than others. First, there is the highest welfare label available in the UK; Organic. This label shows that the animals produced under organic standards have been reared with much lower stocking density and have lived with outdoor access. One leading organic label is the Soil Association Organic Standard which holds the highest certified welfare standards in the UK (OneKind, 2016). This scheme goes beyond most of the UKs minimum legal welfare requirements including the ban on the use of confinement systems, GM feed and the early weaning of piglets (Farms Not Factories, 2016). In the absence of Soil Association products, Free-range schemes are the next best thing. However, these do come with significant limitations. For example, only eggs and poultry have legally defined standards for free-range living (OneKind, 2016).
RSPCA Assured (previously Freedom Food) is another welfare assurance scheme used widely in the UK, with around 30% of British pigs reared under this label. The RSPCA assess farms using strict welfare standards that go beyond that of the minimum requirements, focusing on environmental enrichment in particular. This helps to increase positive experiences for the animals, not simply reducing the negative ones. However, unlike organically reared livestock, RSPCA assured farms wean their piglets from 21 days and GM feed is allowed. There is also controversy over the allowance of tail docking in pigs in certain circumstances. Circumstances that could potentially have been avoided were it not for the type of intensive farming system used, e.g more space and enrichment equals reduced stress, meaning less tail biting occurring. That said, RSPCA Assured products seem likely to be the most widely available and recognisable to the public whilst ensuring higher than minimum levels of welfare.
Finally, the most recognised of all the animal welfare food labels is the Red Tractor scheme. This label does no more than simply inform the consumer that the animal products meet the minimum legal requirements of welfare in the UK. Basically, it informs us that the meat was legally produced in Britain. It is by no means an indicator of good welfare. Using pig farming as an example, under Red Tractor schemes pigs are often kept on bare concrete slats with no bedding or straw, with limited space and ineffective enrichment.
Furthermore, it has been reported that the widespread illegal tail docking of piglets also takes place on many Red Tractor farms, for no adequate reasons (OneKind, 2016). In 2007, it was estimated that around 88% of pigs sold for meat in the UK were victims of illegal tail-docking (Hickman, 2007). That number is horrifyingly shocking when thinking about those that may have bought Red Tractor pork with the misguided knowledge that it was produced under ‘high’ levels of welfare.
It becomes quite clear that precise information regarding food labeling should be made more widely available to the buying public. In fact, it could even be more widely advertised. Not enough people understand animal welfare labels to make an informed choice of which one to buy. Additionally, an even further concern is the complete lack of welfare labeling altogether on products with ‘hidden’ animal-derived ingredients (e.g milk powder). But that could easily form the basis of its own discussion…
Farms Not Factories, (2016) Understanding Labelling. Available at: http://farmsnotfactories.org/resources/labelling/ [Accessed 30 October 2016]
Hickman, M. (2007) The pain of tail-docking: a fact of life for millions of pigs. The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-pain-of-tail-docking-a-fact-of-life-for-millions-of-pigs-761687.html [Accessed 30 October 2016]
OneKind, (2016) Food Labelling and Assurance Schemes. Available at: http://www.onekind.org/lifestyle/onekind_eating/food_labelling_assurance/ [Accessed 30 October 2016]