DAY 392: WHAT DO THE LABELS ON MEAT ACTUALLY MEAN?
For the last few days I have been on a juice-only detox to shave off the pounds before my US wedding next week to Ann (we got married in the UK but are having our celebration next week – I’m not allowed to be saving frogs or pigs as the confetti falls so this blog must end then).
The diet is a massively upsetting endeavor which involves drinking green slime.
‘At least I’m being vegan’ I said to Ann
‘You are not vegan. You just aren’t eating anything’
I take her point.
The meat-eater is also not a vegetarian when they put their hamburger down to eat their chips. But at least they are temporarily abstaining.
But I have decided, therefore, after I drink the last green slime, to be a proper vegan.
With a heavy heart I can tell you that this decision has not come as naturally to me as being vegetarian but I feel I must at least try. Am I doing what is expected of me for the sake of this blog? I had hoped I would be throwing cheese at right wing politicians by now but I am simply not as angry about dairy as I ought to be.
Perhaps I still have some connections to make in my own heart.
Nevertheless I’m lightheaded and vaguely angry about not eating. Which is the perfect mood with which to trawl the great British supermarkets looking at the labels on pork meat.
I will be going to a cross section of great british supermarkets and assessing PORK HAPPINESS.
This is not a strictly scientific measure (for that you need to ask pigs how they are feeling) rather it will be an overview of how much silent pain you might expect in each supermarket meat shelf based on the welfare quality of their products.
But it’s a fairly accurate assessment nonetheless. I’ve been reading up a lot about pork labels and speaking to Compassion in World Farming, the absolute experts, to get all the info so you don’t have to.
The supermarkets I’m going to are:
WAITROSE – posh but expensive.
SAINSBURY’S – middle class but bearable
CO-OP – sort of in the middle??? Who knows, who cares.
ICELAND – rubbish and cold. Full of mad old women with trolleys
TESCO – the everyman’s behemoth that loves cheap chicken. Will sell your house as well as your soul.
And what do the labels mean?
I’ll be going into much more detail in my book about this but the essential information goes a little like this
Highest welfare to lowest – what labels measure of happiness?
the gold standard, with ‘soil association’ being the best.
Although it doesn’t necessarily follow that using good fertilizer means the pigs are happy on the whole there is a reliable connection between meat labelled ‘organic’ and happy(ier) animals. If you must eat pig ALWAYS AND ONLY buy organic. Please.
Free range –
the term ‘free range’ is not a legally binding definition as it is with chickens but it does denote a reliable agreement between farmers and supermarkets indicating that the pigs live outdoor, although not necessarily on rich pasture
Outdoor bred –
The pigs are bred outdoors as opposed to in farrowing crates but then revert to being intensively reared, indoors. It’s something but not an awful lot.
Indoor reared –
This is what I saw in Spain: intensive and not very happy. Some labels may indicate the use of deep bedding and straw. You should look for this as a minimum if you are buying indoor reared food.
Red tractor –
This is the lowest assurance of all. Means little except that the farm is (probably) complying with the most basic EU laws, the pigs are not castrated and that some tractors are….er… red. It seems a bit like being given a losers prize for turning up to the race and falling over your laces at the start. Even though some higher welfare meat (like Organic Duchy Orginials) will have this label as well as their orgnic labels it’s not something to be impressed by. And if meat doesn’t have this label (or any other) and doesn’t come from a reputable shop you might want to see if it glows in the dark or is still writhing in the pack.
The RSPCA freedom food sticker – this can be applied to both indoors and outdoor reared meats. It gives a welfare approval rather than denoting a particular system of rearing. Indoor reared meat with RSPCA approval may mean the pigs are in better conditions than free range meat without it. Worth looking out for.
Can we trust labels at all?
From what I have read and the experts I have spoken to, the labeling system on pig meat is meaningful and on the whole honest if not bound in EU law.
And yet a while back a reader on this blog pointed out a video that showed appalling conditions on an ‘RSPCA freedom food approved’ farm of pigs covered in much and unable to walk.
How does this square up?
If you are generous it means that the RSPCA can’t check every farm. They check about 1 in 3 unannounced which within the industry is very high but which is, in some instances, clearly not good enough. If you are not generous it means the RSPCA don’t care. Your call. But you might want to take labeling – as well as your bacon – with a pinch of salt even if on the whole it has good intentions.
A simpler system?
I asked Compassion in World Farming why the system could not be simplified. Surely it would make more sense to have three lables, like GOLD, SILVER, BRONZE, which denoted how happy the pigs were and avoided the consumer needing a PhD in pig welfare.
They agreed this made sense but pointed out it required huge organisation and a large drive from the consumer. Perhaps it would come.
And what would count as Gold and silver and bronze? I asked.
‘The obvious answer is that organic would be gold, free range silver, and indoor rearing with straw bedding and no castration would be bronze. But we would like gold to be something higher than the current standard organic level. An aspirational level that has not yet been achieved. There are always improvements to be made’
Always buy British?
Compassion in World Farming recently published a shocking report on the state of EU farms. Of 45 intensive pig farms visited from 9 EU member countries 44 were seriously flouting EU welfare regulations including the use of routine tail docking and lack of appropriate bedding and enrichment material
This means that EVERY SINGLE pig farm that I visited in Spain, all of which had no straw bedding or any enrichment were breaking the EU law.
This is very telling because the key reason that pigs bite each others tails is because of intense frustration and lack of stimulation. If farmers were forced to avoid routine tail docking they would have to provide higher welfare to stop the biting.
This should put you off buying meat from an EU country without an organic label or other assurance – that means Parma Ham in fancy packing is out, expensive chorizo from spain is out (unless Iberico pork), cheap Danish bacon is out, cheap frankfurters are out.
But what about good old British pork? Can we hold our head up any higher?
While the conditions in British pig farms are somewhat better than in most other EU countries (we have totally banned sow stalls whereas in the EU they are allowed for limited use) in 2008 CIWF found that over half of intensive British pig farms that they visited undercover had a prevalence of tail docking and over a third had no, or ineffective, enrichment.
This is all rather depressing isn’t it?
The simple answer is ONLY buy organic – and if your sandwich has pork in it with no label don’t buy it. The simpler answer still is don’t buy pig meat at all.
In the next blog: what I found in the supermarkets.