Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the EIT Food, University of Reading & European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)'s online course, Understanding Food Labels. Join the course to learn more.
About twelve brown chickens wandering across a sloping field
Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Animal welfare: how to make an informed choice

Did you know that the terms ‘farm assured’, ‘locally sourced’, and ‘farm fresh’ don’t always mean higher welfare standards for the animals?

Choosing the most welfare-friendly product in dairy or meat sections of supermarkets isn’t easy. Food labels can be very confusing. As we have seen throughout the course, there are many different codes, labels, standards, and regulations. With so many descriptions and farm assurance schemes available, how do you know what labels actually say about the quality of animal’s lives?

European citizens regard the welfare status of farm animals as an important aspect of overall food quality. The EU funded research project ‘Welfare Quality’ found that 84% and 87% of respondents from Norway and Italy respectively, say that animal welfare is important. And respondents from other countries agree, 69% Netherlands, 73% in the UK, 75% in France, and 83% in Hungary and Sweden [1]. This raises the question:

Why is so much of our food not welfare-friendly?

The drive towards lower cost meat and milk is leading to intensive farming. To maintain low running costs, some farming practices restrict animal behaviour and compromise their health and welfare. Animals raised in intensive systems are usually exceptionally fast growing, have larger litter sizes and produce significantly more muscle or milk.

What does animal welfare mean in practical terms?

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), good animal welfare

‘requires disease prevention and appropriate veterinary care, shelter, management and nutrition, a stimulating and safe environment, humane handling and humane slaughter or killing’ [2].

The ‘Five Freedoms’ defined by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) have been widely used as framework for animal legislation and assurance scheme standards [3]. They are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

How can labelling help?

Due to the lack of a single labelling scheme referring to animal welfare in the EU, consumers can’t differentiate between products of different standards. As a result, very few products provide information on welfare standards and there is very little motivation for producers to improve animal welfare and market their products accordingly [4].

At present, the only compulsory system for animal welfare labelling in the EU is for eggs, which we looked at in Step 3.5.

How do I make an informed choice?

Some terms that you see on labels only apply to the way the animal is farmed for part of its life. For example: ‘grass-fed beef’, ‘free-range poultry meat’ and ‘outdoor-bred pork’ products may come from animals reared outdoors for only half of their lives [5]. And some quality assurance schemes, such as UK’s Red Tractor, only comply with minimum legal standards rather than guaranteeing higher animal welfare or environmental standards.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the things to look out for on your label, recommended by the charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and the Eating Better Alliance [5&6].

  • Organic labels, including Soil Association Organic and EU Organic (green leaf logo on pack): offer better animal welfare; lower stocking densities; antibiotic use restrictions; more natural feed; biodiversity friendly farming.

  • RSPCA Assured certification focuses on improving animal welfare; covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems; ensures that greater space, bedding and enrichment materials are provided.

Terms to look out for & their meaning by animal product category [6]

  • Dairy: Organic or RSPCA assured mean that the cows have access to pasture in the grass-growing season and they are less crowded when inside.

  • Eggs: All eggs must be stamped with a code to specify the method of production. Look at the first number in the code on the egg (see previous Step). Free-range and organic systems mean that the hens live in sheds but can also go outside during daylight hours. Barn means that the hens are kept indoors but they can move around and have enough space.

  • Chicken: Intensively reared chickens are bred and fed to reach their slaughter weight in less than 6 weeks. Free-range will usually be slaughtered at 8 weeks and organic at around 12 weeks.

  • Pork, Bacon & Sausages: Outdoor bred pigs are born in systems with outdoor space, then brought indoors for fattening after weaning, while the mother continues to live outdoors. Outdoor reared pigs are born in systems with outdoor space and spend around half their life outdoors. Organic or free-range pigs are born and reared in systems with space where they can roam outdoors throughout their lives.

  • Beef: Pasture-reared means cattle have access to the outdoors throughout the grass-growing season whenever weather conditions allow. This enables them to express natural behaviours such as grazing, exploring and exercising.

  • Lamb: Organic requires access to pasture in the grass-growing season and limits journey times for live lambs to 8 hours.

  • Turkey: RSPCA indoor means the turkeys live in sheds and have more space, straw bales and perches to sit on and enrichment materials to peck at. Free-range and RSPCA free range mean they live in sheds but can go outdoors during the day. They grow more slowly than intensively farmed turkeys. Organic and higher welfare free-range are slower growing breeds. They live in small flocks and go outside during the day.

  • Salmon: Sustainably caught wild salmon is best for you and the fish. If farmed, organic or RSPCA Freedom Food salmon have the highest welfare standards.

For more detail, The Compassionate Food Guide provides at-a-glance sliding scales to show how different assurance schemes measure up in various categories such as dairy, eggs, beef and salmon.

The same charity issued a detailed analysis comparing farm assurance schemes with each other and the standard industry practice in the UK. A farming system that provides for behavioural freedom without compromising health is described as having high welfare potential, whereas those that fail to meet the behavioural and physical needs of the animal and are therefore likely to cause suffering have low welfare potential [7].

A collaborative approach to labelling in France

In France, different organisations have worked together to adopt a new high animal welfare label called Ètiquette Bien-Être Animal. The partners formed the Animal Welfare Label Association and are involved in various sectors, from distribution and retail, animal protection organisations, and production companies.

The label is based on an evaluation covering nearly 230 welfare criteria and displays a 5-level product rating scale (A, B, C, D or E) indicating superior, good, quite good, standard, and ‘minimal’ standard [8].

Do you use a country-specific animal welfare labelling scheme when you shop? Please share schemes in the comments section below to help Learners around the world find labels that might help them to make informed buying decisions.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Labels

EIT Food

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: