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Do ‘welfare labels’ on supermarket produce really mean anything?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

A lot of my comments regarding the meat industry in the UK and associated ‘farm assurance’ welfare labeling come from personal experience.

I have worked and currently work directly some intensive farm units, usually as an educational tool as part of my job. I regularly hold tours for students and any one generally interested in food and farming practices at local pig units I have access to, if they want to spare a Saturday afternoon and can stomach the smell. Since 2010, the two I most often work with have been refurbished and monitored under the Farm Assurance group.

I can see that many are already familiar with most of the schemes, which include:

  1.  Freedom Food (under the RSPCA)

  2. The Red Tractor (widely familiar among general consumers)

  3. The non-GMO project (a USA based organisation which still, for some reason, remain anti GMO produce)

  4. The Australian based HAACP programs which cover dairy.

Image result for red tractor logo

Now under the Red tractor alone, the sale value in June 2015 of Red Tractor labelled products in the UK was £12 billion, double that of 2004, reported at £6 billion. Red Tractor boasts that 65% of shoppers recognise their logo and 57% of these shoppers are influenced in their product choices by this logo (Red Tractor Food, 2015).

Now, not only does this demonstrate that a large chunk of the food and farming industry is dominated by Farm Assurance, but suggests that consumers are largely influenced by these quality assurance schemes.

Now – back to my own experience in the intensively farmed pig industry. Heavily protected by security and bio-security systems, once you are in you can walk the unit within 15 minutes and see every stage of pig production from birth to slaughter weight. The units chuck out a huge number of pigs every week for bacon (100kg+ finishing weight). I work with and see a complete set of advanced technologies to enhance profit sales whilst maintaining the minimum required welfare standards for the Farm Assurance schemes we are monitored by.

I will bullet point some observations that stick out for the students when we tour the unit for their education:

  1. Farrowing crates are used for birthing. The sow has very limited movement and remain on slatted floors with no enrichment and only access to a water nipple and an automatic feeder.

  2. The large white sows are bred to procedure a high litter yield. More often than not I’ve been present as a sow gives birth, or shortly after, and I see multiple runts and still births along with a healthy bunch of piglets. The students particularly hate seeing the runts go without a nipple or get pushed out by their siblings. Especially so when I tell them they are NOT allowed to intervene.

  3. The boars are used for teasing, and all servicing is done through artificial insemination. They do occasionally get to naturally service a sow, however no staff had any idea how often this was, or had actually seen it for themselves.

  4. New, young sows are put straight in with established breeding sows. Behaviours recorded by post-grads for their ethograms include vulva, hoof and tail biting, as well as stereotypical and other stress behaviours.

  5. Biting isn’t too much of an issue however, as teeth are clipped and tails are docked when the piglets are still very young.This means the damage the pigs do to each other to establish their pecking order  and when stressed, is dulled and rarely results in infection or miscarriage for the breeding sows.

  6. Part of the intensive stage of growth for the piglets is in a windowless shack, on slatted floors with no bedding or substrate. This makes for a highly efficient, automatic waste removal system, as the faeces and urine fall through. For enrichment, these piglets are given a single chain which hangs from the ceiling, which they can play with. The smell in this area is particularly strong as the ventilation systems are basic. Lighting does not follow a natural photo period and the fly presence is high; fly papers in the tens have to be changed daily, as they fill up so quickly.

  7. Finishers (last stage before slaughter) have a better time with smaller, better ventilated pens but with less animals per pen, and some substrate. Much nicer to see than the shacks, but still alarmingly small compared to the extensively kept pigs. They have limited space to ensure they do not waste too much energy not putting on muscle mass.

My overall point here is that despite the Red Tractor and similar schemes, I do not feel that then general public have an accurate idea about welfare standards and what they mean for these animals. The clever marketing by companies such as ‘happy eggs’, show consumers a very different animal lifestyle to what actually occurs in industry.

Now I do not disagree that these intensive units meet the require welfare standards for the farming assurance schemes used, but I do feel that consumers have a different idea about the welfare of the animals they are eating, compared to a reality not publicised from both intensive farming systems, extensive farming systems, and everything in between.

Further questions are: would people have as much faith in the farm assurance labels if they saw the meat origin farms and farming systems for themselves? Would the general public and meat consumers be willing to pay more for meat from stricter welfare regulations farms or labelled with a logo from a new welfare assurance scheme with outstanding and honest welfare standards?


Sources of information, including my data and stats from above.

Writtle College (2012) Farm Guide. PDF Available at: http://www.writtle.ac.uk/pdfs/Farm%20Guide.pdf (Links to an external site.) [Accessed 16th October 2016].

DEFRA (2006) Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy – indicator data sheet.  Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20070609200009/http://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/indicators/d107_data.htm (Links to an external site.) [Accessed: 16th October 2016]

Food Standards Agency (2012) Food Certification and assurance schemes. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/kitemarks-in-farmed-meat-and-produce (Links to an external site.) [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

RSPCA (2014) Freedom Food to Rebrand as RSPCA Assured. Available at: http://www.freedomfood.co.uk/industrynews/2014/09/freedom-food-to-rebrand-as-rspca-assured (Links to an external site.) [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

IFAMA (2016) About the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association. Available at:  http://www.ifama.org/Mission-&-History (Links to an external site.). [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

Red Tractor Food (2015) Red Tractor Annual Review 2016. Available at:  http://www.redtractor.org.uk/contentfiles (Links to an external site.) [Accessed: 16th October 2016]. /RedTractor-573.pdf

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