Know your labels

Food labels can be helpful, but what do they really tell us?

Published October 2020

Clever marketing phrases

Although they may sound appealing, terms such as ‘farm fresh’, ‘locally-reared’, and ‘ high welfare’ on animal product packaging in fact mean nothing at all. For many consumers, these advertising terms paint a picture of an idyllic, spacious farm where animals have lived happy lives outdoors and experienced good welfare – but unfortunately, these labels are simply marketing terms intended to lead us to believe welfare standards are present when they are not. In fact, around 80% of agricultural animals in the UK are kept in intensive farming systems which provide minimal standards of animal welfare. 

If you’re looking to purchase more ‘ethical’ animal products, it’s very easy to be misled by clever marketing and rolling green fields on packaging and never think twice about the conditions on the farm where your eggs or meat have come from. In order to help consumers understand their food better, there are a number of labelling systems available. As you may expect, some of these are more robust than others, so we’re going to take a closer look at some of the many options out there.

The Red Tractor Scheme

RSPCA Assured

Soil Association 

Industry standards and common labels

The Red Tractor Scheme, led by Assured Food Standards, certifies that the labelled food was produced in Britain and is reflective of standard UK industry practice; meeting a certain level of food safety, hygiene and the environment. Although some of these standards are indicative of higher animal welfare, such as the prohibition of male pig castration and a slightly reduced stocking density for broiler chickens, many welfare issues are not addressed at all. These include the confinement of sows during farrowing and permanent tethering of dairy cows.

The British Lion mark may be stamped on eggs, indicating that the egg was laid in Britain and meets the very minimum requirements for animal welfare. This means that the eggs may have been laid by hens which are kept in ‘enriched cages’ (slightly larger than traditional battery cages, with minimal opportunities for hens to engage in natural behaviours). The British Lion Standard also certifies higher welfare eggs such as barn and free-range. Although they have recently improved the standard required for barn eggs, now insisting on lower stocking densities in multi-tier systems and the provision of enrichments, these hens may also have been subjected to the painful process of de-beaking at the start of their short lifespan. Moreover, male chicks may have been macerated immediately after hatching.

Higher-welfare options

Those looking to support farms exceeding industry standard practice may look for assurances from the Soil Association and RSPCA. Soil Association certification confirms that the product is organic (meaning no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, or other chemicals were used on the farm). Soil Association standards also prohibit confinement systems such as cages for hens and ensure all animals are raised free-range with access to bedding or other enrichment. There are guidelines on stunning and slaughter which farmers must adhere to in order to keep their certification (CIWF, 2020). These guidelines aim to cause the least amount of suffering when animals are slaughtered.

RSPCA assured products have been assessed by the RSPCA and deemed to comply with a number of standards around animal welfare and best practice. Farmers must provide animals with more space than the legal minimum and ensure that animals have bedding and enrichment available. In order to achieve RSPCA assurance, farmers must adhere to guidelines around animal health and welfare, and regularly monitor the standard of both health and welfare on their farms (CIWF 2020).

Like Soil Association certification, RSPCA assurance extends to ensuring safe and ‘humane’ slaughter practices. Unlike the Soil Association, which only endorses free range producers, the RSPCA have standards for indoor systems, where animals will be kept inside for their whole lives.

Despite the promises associated with these ‘higher-welfare’ labels, there have been many well-known cases that have exposed the terrible conditions that the animals were kept in, see below:

Hogwood Farm (a Tesco supplier) was a Red Tractor Scheme approved pork farm. Undercover filming by Viva! exposed distressing scenes of animal welfare that fell well below even the Red Tractor standards. Read more here. Source: BBC.

Enriched cage systems may be Red Lion approved, meaning that the eggs have been laid in Britain, but these cages mean that hens lead lives that are far from enriching. Read more about egg-laying systems here. Source: CIWF.

Trees Farm, previously an RSPCA assured farm, broke RSPCA guidelines for catching hens which states ‘birds must be caught sympathetically’; as hens were filmed being thrown into transportation cages with little regard for their wellbeing. Read more here. Source:  The Grocer.

So what do these industry terms and symbols really mean?

Meat, dairy and egg labels can be misleading. Although around 80% of UK farm animals are reared in intensive systems, there’s no law requiring food labels to say exactly how that animal has been raised (except for whole hen’s eggs; powdered or liquid eggs require no such labelling). This means that although some people may find reassurance in seeing the Red Lion or Red Tractor symbol on their food, in truth, these products only meet the basic welfare standards for animals.

A study by Compassion in World Farming showed that once consumers know the full story, many of us choose higher welfare options. A great case study to support this is a campaign which in 2004 resulted in mandatory labelling of egg laying systems (caged, barn reared or free-range systems). Since then, cage-free egg production has doubled from around 30% in the UK to just over 60% today! Given the choice, most consumers will opt for compassion. 

What can you do next time you shop?

Well, we would always advocate for individuals to cut out or reduce their intake of animal products. This is the only way to truly ensure that the animal is not exposed to any form of harm or poor standards of welfare during it’s lifetime.

Alternatively, if individuals wish to continue purchasing these products but are concerned about the welfare of the animals, you may wish to choose a local and reliable supplier. Schemes such as RSPCA Assured and The Soil Association are indicative of better standards of animal welfare than The Red Tractor Scheme or British Lion, but we know from the stories above that even this isn’t always the case. Don’t be misled by clever marketing ploys and always take these labels with a pinch of salt: where mass production of meat is involved, we will never know for sure what goes on behind factory doors

Author’s note:
This article was researched and written by our Education & Outreach Manager. As a consumer, they was tired of seeing misleading labels in her local supermarket, and felt more responsibility should be placed on food producers to label packaging clearly and transparently so that other consumers are equipped to make the choice that is right for them.

Take action

One of the organisations leading the campaign for honest food labelling is Compassion in World Farming. Their work inspired us to write this article, and join the fight for mandatory labelling of all meat and dairy products to give consumers transparency in their food choices, and ultimately better welfare systems for farmed animals.

You can click here to sign their petition.

Click here to visit their website and find out more about their campaign, which includes a proposed new labelling scheme to give shoppers an immediate, clear understanding of the systems used to produce these products. 

“The grim reality is, the labels on intensively reared products frequently display misleading images that make the consumer think animals have been farmed outdoors when, in fact, they may have been kept indoors their entire lives. That’s why we campaign for honest labelling. When products are accurately labelled, it empowers consumers, is fairer to farmers, beneficial for retailers and – most importantly – improves the lives of millions of animals each year.”