Magazine

The bewildering labelling of pork

  • 18 October 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Pictures of pork labelling and one of a pig

Animal welfare campaigners want to raise the profile of pig farming standards. But shoppers trying to buy "ethical" pork are met with a bewildering array of labelling. So could free-range pork be the next free-range chicken?

Look at all the logos and labels next time you browse for that pork purchase.

Outdoor reared. Outdoor bred. Organic. Free-range. Freedom Food endorsed. Red Tractor assured.

But however confusing the labyrinth of labels may be, the demand for ethically produced porcine products appears to be growing.

Waitrose - one of the few supermarkets that sells free-range pork - says sales of it are up 45% year on year, with free-range bacon up 26% and free-range sausages up 45%.

Tesco says sales of its Tesco Finest Pork - which is all outdoor bred or outdoor reared - are 20% up on last year.

There are industry-agreed terms for these labels, but charities such as the RSPCA and campaigns such as Jamie Oliver's Save our Bacon want things to go further - for clear labelling to be a legal requirement on all pork and pork product packaging.

According to market research firm Mintel, some 43% of consumers say they buy free-range products whenever they can.

But while free range has had a huge impact on the egg industry, only about 1% to 2% of British pigs are totally free range, according to the National Pig Association (NPA).

For some animal welfare and environmental campaigners, such as Tracy Worcester, who wants an end to what she describes as "industrialised, factory pig farming - with crammed confinements, air and water pollution, and antibiotic-laden feed", it is surprising poultry rather than pigs were at the frontier of the free-range revolution.

"Why chickens were taken up to champion, when surely pigs, which are much more intelligent and social animals, were not more important, I don't understand," she says.

In 1995, barely anyone bought free-range eggs, with 86% British eggs coming from battery cages. Of the nine billion eggs laid in the UK in 2012, the British Egg Industry Council expects 49% of them to come from free-range hens allowed to roam outdoors - out selling those from hens in cages for the first time.

The British Poultry Council says organic and free-range chicken products now account for 5% of UK poultry.

So if the free-range model has been so successful with poultry, would it work for the pork industry?

As things stand, consumers appear to be somewhat baffled when it comes to trying to distinguish between outdoor-reared - when a pig typically spends 50% of its life outside - and outdoor-bred - when pigs are born outside but moved inside about four weeks later, when they have been weaned.

There is also a Red Tractor logo, which guarantees pork has been produced to stringent standards which go beyond the legal minimum, says the British Pig Executive (BPEX).

In 2009, an RSPCA survey found that only 2% of those questioned understood the terms used.

The actual words "free range" are not widely seen in supermarkets because so few pigs roam around outside for the duration of their lives, says Zoe Davies, general manager of the NPA.

Their pork tends to be "very expensive, very niche", and it is mainly marketed to butchers, or through special deals in local pubs, she says.

British pig farmers have already had to cope with challenges such as swine flu, foot and mouth, and have already "paid a price" for going down the welfare route, she says.

A 1999 UK-wide ban on the use of sow stalls - metal enclosures in which female pigs are unable to turn around - resulted in an increase in production costs. It also made retailers opt for "cheaper, lower welfare pork" from Europe, says Davies. New EU-wide regulations will come into effect next year, however.

According to Davies, the UK ban had a big impact on the industry. There were about 800,000 sows in the UK before ban, now there's about 409,000.

"We were about 75% self-sufficient, now we are 50% self-sufficient," she says.

But will free range ever be the answer?

Davies believes it could also be "dangerous" to push the model too far, as it is not a clear-cut case in terms of animal welfare.

She says there are some really good indoor systems - with lots of straw, which allows pigs to root and build nests - while outdoor pigs units, with their metal huts, can be very cold in the middle of winter.

In 1959 two farm girls paint oil onto a pig

Vicky Bond, from Compassion in World Farming, which has set up the Good Pig Award to celebrate higher welfare pig systems, agrees that although in an ideal world all pigs would be kept in free-range systems - including outdoor bred and outdoor reared - it accepts that good welfare is possible in deep-straw bedded indoor systems.

But she says the charity wants indoor systems to use free farrowing, which ensures the sow is unrestricted during the time she gives birth and suckles her piglets.

There are also other practical reasons why free-range pork is unlikely to become the next free-range chicken, according to BPEX's Jon Bullock.

Pigs like to spend about 70% of the day rooting - that is, diggings with their snouts, which can cause soil erosion.

As a result, he says, pork can only be produced outdoors on very specific types of land, and almost all the suitable land is already being used.

Ruth Clements, a vet and expert on sustainable farming practices at FAI Farms, says there are essentially "three Es" that need to be taken into account when considering animal farming systems - ethics, environment and economics - and all three need to add up to make a sustainable system.

"We're not going to see all pigs go free-range, and neither should we," she says.

"We need to focus on developing both good indoor and outdoor systems which focus on what an animal needs and wants, rather than trying to wedge them in to a system which does not add up in one or more of the three e's."

Of course, there are those who would say that if people are concerned about animal welfare, then give up eating meat altogether.

But for the others, that array of stickers isn't going anywhere from the UK's pork counters.