Pigs in an intensive farm
Pigs in an indoor intensive farm

Chris Packham, the television presenter and environmental campaigner, once said, if he was king for a day, the first thing he’d do is “change the labelling of food”. As with cigarette packets, he suggested, “maybe we should have photographs of the conditions that the animals are kept in on the food when you’re buying it. That would change people’s shopping practices instantaneously.”

Few of us know much about where our food comes from and many meat producers are happy to keep us in the dark. If the reality of modern factory farming of animals was displayed on meat and dairy packaging, would there be a consumer revolution?

There is some evidence to suggest there might. When mandatory labelling for eggs was introduced in 2004 it caused a significant change in consumer behaviour. Until that time, eggs produced from free-range and organic hens would publicise their higher-welfare credentials, but eggs from birds confined indoors rarely stated their provenance and sometimes carried misleading labels showing hens in grassy fields. Then the EU ruled that egg boxes had to carry one of the following terms: “eggs from caged hens”, “barn eggs” (referring to hens kept indoors but not in cages) or “free range eggs”. Supermarkets quickly saw the impact on sales. For example, Asda reported that in 2003 (before the new labels were introduced), 34 per cent of eggs it sold came from non-caged hens, but by 2005 that had shot up to 58 per cent.

Free-range eggs now dominate the UK retail market. A number of supermarkets have stopped selling eggs from caged hens altogether.

Public interest vs industry resistance

Opinion polls show public appetite for similarly clear labelling on meat and dairy products. In 2021, Opinium asked 1,990 UK adults whether animal products should be labelled according to the conditions they are raised in: 68 per cent agreed, while only 14 per cent disagreed and the rest were unsure.

The government has been considering the idea. In 2021, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) put out a call for evidence on the subject of animal welfare labelling. A number of civil society organisations made the case for mandatory “method of production” labelling, which – just like with eggs – would clearly tell consumers how the animals lived. Compassion in World Farming even laid out how this could work for different species. For example, for chickens, they recommend the following categories: “Indoor Intensive”, “Improved Indoor” (for birds given a little more space), “Free Range” (more space, with access to outdoors) and “Organic” (yet more space again).

Meat industry bodies argue that “method of production” is not a good proxy for animal welfare. They say that knowing an animal had access to the outdoors doesn’t tell you it lived a better life. Nick Allen from the British Meat Packers Association told me, “As someone that has spent years as an outdoor pig farmer, I don’t think that’s always more welfare-friendly. Outdoor pigs can get sunburnt, walk on frozen ground and be up to their hocks in mud – whereas it might be better for them to be inside on some nice straw. You get good and bad indoor systems . . . I don’t have any objection to method of production labelling but I don’t like judgements being attached to the method.”

While that sounds reasonable, it is only common sense to acknowledge that animals would naturally live outdoors. Most people intuitively feel that a pig should be able to feel the sun on its back, or a chicken be able to peck around outside looking for worms. Yet most of our farmed pigs and chickens live short lives confined indoors with no opportunity to experience such natural behaviours. Similarly, stocking density clearly matters. Are the animals crammed together or do they have room to move freely? You don’t need any particular expertise to spot the difference.

Philip Lymbery, global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, is well attuned to industry sophistry on this topic. He heard the same arguments from egg producers in the 90s. He says it’s why he doesn’t argue for “animal welfare” labelling, “because that’s specific and subjective. How do you measure animal welfare? That’s debatable. With method of production labelling, people instinctively know the benefits of free-range. On any sensible judgement, having animals caged, crated and confined is wrong.”

Demand and deception

Industry bodies, including the National Farmers Union, argue that there is already accurate, clear and easy-to-understand labelling in place. I haven’t found that to be true at all. Let’s take pigs as an example. A common label for pork products is “Outdoor Bred”. This means that the pigs are born outside and stay in fields until weaning. Piglets are weaned from their mothers when they are 28 days old, so after spending the first four weeks of their life outdoors, they’ll then be fattened up indoors. Given that pigs are slaughtered at around six months of age, an “outdoor-bred” pig actually spends over 80 per cent of its life exclusively indoors.

Do most people choosing “Outdoor Bred” pork know this information? Some supermarkets and brands voluntarily clarify that their Outdoor Bred pork comes from pigs who go on to live indoors – but many don’t, risking seriously misleading consumers.

If you want to buy pork from pigs and sows who have roamed freely their entire lives between outdoors and straw-bedded huts, you need to look for “free-range” and “organic” labels. You’ll find decent labelling definitions on websites belonging to RSPCA Assured or Farms Not Factories. What’s rarely labelled is the majority of pork coming from pigs who have lived wholly indoors, often in barren conditions, with mothers confined to farrowing (birthing) crates where they’re held in place by metal bars and can’t turn around for weeks at a time.

Without mandatory labelling, we can easily fall prey to deceptive marketing. Richmond sausages come wrapped in a bucolic image of rolling green fields, which is a particularly cruel way to package meat from pigs who have never seen grass. Even claims to higher welfare may not tell the whole story. Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s ran adverts to promote the fact that their chickens had “more room to perch and play”, offering “20 per cent more space than the industry standard”. Peter Brooks, a multimedia researcher, created an alternative poster for AdFree Cities, showing exactly how much space that was in reality: 32 Sainsbury’s chickens farmed within the 2.16m2 space of a bus shelter poster. Would the average person celebrate this as a “happier and healthier life”, as the adverts claim?

Rob Percival, head of food policy for the Soil Association, told me, “I’d like to see mandatory CCTV in industrial pig and poultry units, as we now have in slaughterhouses, and a QR code on products allowing a consumer to tune in and watch the shed and processing plant in real time.” Perhaps that’s what it will take to cut through the outrageously misleading packaging of animal products and show the truth about how meat is produced.

Meat producers sometimes argue that they’re simply supplying the demand for cheap meat and that’s why we have intensive production systems. But do consumers know what they’re buying? Lymbery challenges the industry directly: “If you truly believe that what you’re doing is right, then tell us through transparent labelling. Why hide behind labelling which is not clear and understandable? Tell the public how it’s produced. The industry has argued against this for so long that they’re clearly not confident that the public will see things in the way that they do.”

Who gets to decide?

Labelling products doesn’t prevent anyone from buying them. If people want the cheapest meat and dairy, provided by any means necessary, they can still have it, but at least they’ll know it comes from an intensive indoor system.

Meanwhile, what most people don’t know is that the food industry is lobbying against such transparency behind closed doors. Industry bodies answered Defra’s call for evidence. I asked some key players to share their evidence with me so I could understand their objections, including the NFU, Dairy UK, National Pig Association and the British Poultry Council. All refused. What are they hiding?

Whatever their arguments were, they seem to have swayed Defra. Following its call for evidence, Defra promised a public consultation on animal welfare labelling in 2023. Yet in July, Defra dropped it. Despite recognising “public appetite for improved welfare labelling” they said they “do not consider the time is right”. They wouldn’t tell me why. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Defra has sided with industry over the public.

It’s a peculiar move from a government that claims to champion the market. Why not let consumers have the information they need to choose freely between products, competing on a level playing field, with everything honestly labelled? Germany has recently adopted mandatory method of production labelling for meat and dairy products and they’re starting with pigs. No more porkies on their pork. We should follow suit.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.