So you only eat free-range eggs, and spend the extra on organic sausages. But what's life really like for the animals that end up on your plate? And how can you be sure that the meat in your shopping bags is cruelty-free? Rob Sharp investigates

Pigs

Many a poultry farmer will tell you that "a battery chicken's a happy chicken", a view based on their not altogether erroneous view that relatively unintelligent birds are well suited to intensive conditions.

The same argument can most definitely not be applied to pigs, though. As the most intelligent British farm animal, the porker is also the most abused, in order to satisfy our demand for cheap bacon.

"If we think of it in human terms, in the terms of intelligence that we value, pigs do have high levels of intelligence," says Julia Wrathall, head of the RSPCA Science Group's farm animals department. "They out-do dogs in many intelligence tests. To realise that a pig can be just as clever in the same way that dogs are is a very interesting thing."

She points out that it is normal for pigs, which are outdoor creatures, to spend a lot of time foraging in the wild. Many intensively reared pigs, however, spend their entire lives under cover. "If people do care about animals, they should think about things from the animal's perspective," Wrathall says.

One of the biggest bêtes noires of the animal-welfare lobby is the use of "sow stalls," a system by which female pigs spend most of their four-month pregnancies caged in narrow stalls or chained in rows by heavy tethers. In 1999, the UK banned this system, and the EU has agreed to do the same starting in 2013. However, last month it was reported that Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Somerfield were (perfectly legally) importing stall-produced meat from abroad and selling it under their own labels.

Meanwhile, at the end of their pregnancies, most breeding sows still give birth and nurse their piglets in small metal cages called farrowing crates. The pressure group Compassion in World Farming is campaigning for all supermarkets to end the use of these crates.

The only real way to guarantee that you get ethical pork and bacon is to buy free range the lucky pigs you see snuffling round fields or orchards full of sties made from semi-circular corrugated iron. Most butchers will clearly label such meat. It is also readily available in some supermarkets: one-third of the own-label pigmeat sold by Co-op and M&S is free range, and all of it sold by Waitrose is produced outdoors. According to CIWF, Asda and Waitrose are the only supermarkets to ensure that sows are provided with straw.

Farmers, meanwhile, argue that ethical consumers should buy British. Danish bacon, a longstanding housewives' favourite, is said to be a pig welfare disaster. "I can say hand on heart that we have the best welfare pigs in the world," says Barney Kay of the National Pig Association. "One big difference between the UK and meats imported is that all ours stay entire, whereas on the Continent they are castrated."

Chickens

Chicken welfare has become the hot topic of the moment. Tonight, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launches a drive to improve the living conditions of battery hens in his new Channel 4 programme, Hugh's Chicken Run. Joining him will be that noisiest of food standards campaigners, Jamie Oliver (who appears in the series) together with the RSPCA, which last week took out full-page adverts in national newspapers challenging retailers to sell "higher welfare chicken".

British farmers produce 855 million "meat" chickens each year, and more than 95 per cent of these are produced indoors in intensive conditions. The chickens, mostly genetic hybrids designed to put on as much weight as possible in a short period, go from newly hatched egg to slaughter weight in around 39 days and, according to Fearnley-Whittingstall, are deprived of anything resembling a natural life. "At the heart of the problem is a bird which is now more or less a genetic freak," he says. "It takes half the time to raise a bird to market weight of two kilos than it did 30 years ago, and in order to do that, you need to have very specialised conditions."

The welfare standards of the 30 million chickens in the UK reared for eggs are scarcely higher. Some 63 per cent of eggs are produced by birds in battery cages, each of which typically measures 50cm by 55cm and houses five birds. These cages do not allow the birds to perch, "dustbathe" (covering themselves in dirt to keep their feathers in condition), or lay eggs in a nest. According to research cited by the RSPCA, this causes hens "immense frustration."

The alternatives to battery farming include the "barn" system, in which flocks of birds are housed in one building. In these systems, the hens have room to stretch and exercise, perches on which to roost and nest boxes in which they can quietly lay their eggs. Another alternative that welfare activists trumpet is "free range", in which hens also have access to a field through pop-holes, and which most closely resemble natural conditions.

So, what does all this mean for the consumer? From a practical point of view, buying ethical eggs has never been easier: all eggs on the UK market are clearly labelled (if the box does not say they are "barn" or "free range", then the buyer presume they come from battery hens). Although chicken-friendly eggs tend to be more expensive, they are usually bigger and generally taste richer, nicer and, well, eggier. The yolks from a free-range egg will usually have a more pleasing orange hue than those of their insipid counterparts.

Meat chickens that are not reared intensively are also easy to identify, though they can cost more than 10 a bird, compared to the 2.50 that you will pay for a battery carcass. These birds will generally be bigger and contain less fat, and their labelling will clearly identify them as free range, (not to mention, most probably, "corn fed"). Because the birds will typically have taken longer to rear, and so be slightly older when they are slaughtered, their flesh will taste gamier and more intense than cheaper meat. Good quality chicken is available in most supermarkets, although as ever the most happily reared birds nearly always end up on the shelves of a good local butcher.

Cows

The cow is Britain's most iconic farm animal why our French neighbours enviously know us as Les Rosbifs. In recent years, however, the reputation of the cattle industry has taken a knock from both the BSE crisis and increased concerns over the welfare of our dairy herd.

Most milk sold in British supermarkets is produced by Holstein-type cattle, which have been selectively bred for high yields. Some organisations claim that this means that dairy cows are often lame and suffer from mastitis (inflammation of the breast) and metabolic diseases. The Holsteins generally live inside in the winter and graze outside in the summer, although some unfortunate animals are kept inside all year round. To carry on producing milk, each female dairy cow must be made pregnant every twelve months; most are slaughtered after three sets of "milkings" (the period after the birth of a calf, in which they produce milk) because their production will then go into steep decline. The two "middle class" supermarkets, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, are along with Morrisons the only British outlets where all dairy cows have access to pasture.

The welfare of beef cattle, meanwhile, depends on whether the animal is given access to suitable bedding and allowed outdoors, at least during grazing season. All beef from Morrisons, M&S and Waitrose comes from beasts offered bedding material when housed, while 50 per cent of beef cattle for Co-op and two-thirds for Asda are given bedding. As far as fresh air goes, only a small proportion of beef cattle for Sainsbury's and Tesco are reared in permanent indoor housing. Co-op and Somerfield have ended the sale of beef from permanently indoor-housed cattle.

Another area of concern for welfare campaigners has been the development of "double-muscled breeds", such as Belgian Blue, which are bred to produce more steaks per cow in as short a time as possible, but which can suffer problems when giving birth. At the most recent count (from data published in December by Compassion in World Farming), Co-op, Waitrose and Asda still get some of their beef from double-muscled breeds.

Specialist butchers remain the best places to go for meat from ethically reared cows. Although the taste of a steak is affected by the length of time it is "hung" post-slaughter, meat from a beast that has been allowed to graze naturally and put on weight at a relatively leisurely pace will be the highest quality.

A note on Veal

Veal meat from baby cows is one of the most controversial foodstuffs on the market. Live exports of veal calves sparked riots in the 1990s, and an episode of the forthcoming BBC series Kill it, Cook it, Eat it will deal with the often complex ethics that surround its production.

From the ethical meat-eater's point of view, there is nothing wrong per se with consuming a very young creature: animals differ from humans in that they have little concept of longevity; they exist on a day-by-day basis, so do not "look forward" to growing old or "suffer" from being slaughtered while juvenile.

All veal comes from the 50 per cent of dairy calves that are male and cannot produce milk. In Britain, where the market for the product is limited, farmers tend either to shoot male calves at birth (because it is uneconomic to rear them), or ship them to the Continent in lorries.

This is an enormous shame. On the Continent, particularly in Holland, veal cows are often housed in crowded conditions, on slatted floors where they have no straw bedding to lie in or pick at. They fall over frequently. Sometimes they are kept in darkness to produce "white" meat, prized by some chefs. However, the small percentage of veal calves kept and reared in Britain enjoy a far more comfortable existence. Usually, they occupy straw-filled pens with plenty of natural light, and are fed by hand. This produces "ros" meat.

British veal, therefore, is the most ethical (not to mention delicious) of meats: eating it prevents calves being exported and helps to create a market that will end the wasteful practice of shooting at birth. Foreign ros meat is occasionally guilt-free, while all "white" veal is produced in highly unpleasant conditions.

Sheep

Perhaps the most important welfare factor for sheep is that they have access to the outdoors. While hill and mountain sheep are often not high-yielding animals for farmers, and therefore tend to command higher prices in supermarkets, they enjoy a real free-range existence. By contrast, lowland sheep provide more meat and produce more lambs, but they are generally reared more intensively, making their lives less natural and raising significant ethical questions. In addition, according to the campaign group Compassion in World Farming, sheep are among the most transported animals in Britain, often in extremely cramped conditions. And one of biggest issues surrounding sheep farming in Britain is that many animals are subject to painful mutilations: tail-docking, castration and mulesing, a procedure which involves cutting the skin away from the rump, usually without anaesthetic or pain relief.

Both Sainsbury's and Tesco still sell a proportion of their lamb meat which include chops costing around 8 per kg from animals reared in permanent indoor housing. The vast majority of sheep used by supermarkets are tail-docked, and a third are castrated. In recent years, Sainsbury's has shown the biggest reduction in tail-docking and castration; the Co-op, meanwhile, has seen a large increase. No supermarkets currently sell meat from lambs that have been subjected to mulesing.

The new BBC3 series, Kill it, Cook it, Eat it, which begins tonight, highlights the "ethical" issue surrounding slaughtering lambs as young as 26 days old to obtain particularly tender meat. However, RSPCA experts question whether animals have any concept of longevity, as humans do; the organisation says the primary issue is that the animals should be treated well while they are alive and that their slaughter be as humane as possible.

Indeed, the means of slaughter is something that all consumers should be aware of. The most humane method is for the animals to be stunned before they are killed. It is worth noting that British law does not dictate that the method of slaughter should be included on the labels of meat products. In fact, the RSCPA points out that just because imported lamb might be cheaper than British lamb, it will not necessarily have been reared under less ethical conditions.

Game

Game is the most divisive of meats. It refers to a bird or mammal that lived most (if not all) of its natural life in the wild, in conditions of complete freedom that a farm animal could only dream of. However, to the displeasure of a noisy lobby group, it may well have also been slaughtered by a tweed-clad countryman wielding a 12-bore.

By eating game, you are supporting the industry that surrounds the killing of animals for sport. If you have a problem with that, then don't eat game. If you don't have a problem with fieldsports, then you are free to enjoy one of the tastiest, healthiest families of meat.

On the ethics front, whether shooting an animal is any less humane than taking a farm animal to the abattoir is moot. However, opponents of shooting claim that a certain number of game birds will be wounded (rather than cleanly killed) during the course of a shoot, with obvious implication in terms of the suffering they will subsequently undergo.

They add that many of the pheasants and red partridges seen in the countryside at this time of year were reared in game farms until adulthood, when they are released into the wild. Conditions in some game farms, particularly those in continental Europe, are similar to those at battery-chicken units. The only birds that are seldom reared in captivity are grouse and English (or grey-legged) partridges.

Wild venison comes from deer that has been shot with a rifle. However, were they not hunted for meat, some of the deer would have to be culled anyway, to protect forests and commercial grazing. (In Scotland, the Government's Deer Commission has executive powers to shoot herds on private land that have not been properly controlled by landowners.) Deer from herds that have not been controlled by stalking are highly susceptible to disease.

Supporters of fieldsports, meanwhile, point out that the predator control and habitat conservation carried out by landowners anxious to encourage game provides conditions in which many other creatures, including songbirds and other rare species, are likely to thrive.

Fish

In the wild, an average fish will swim hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in its lifetime. In a fish farm, it is forced to occupy an enclosure no bigger (and often a great deal smaller) than a swimming pool.

This can have a huge effect on its welfare. To a fish, water is like air: it has to "breathe" it to stay alive. And the more fish that there are in one place, the more that water quality is affected. Fish raised in cramped conditions also suffer damage to their fins and scales, and tend to be flabbier than their counterparts in the wild because they are unable to be as active.

Farmed fish are fed on processed pellets, many of which contain unpleasant additives: caged salmon, for example, are fed a form of food colouring in order to make their flesh pink. They are also highly susceptible to diseases and infestations, in particular sea lice, which are then often passed on to their wild counterparts, causing huge damage to already threatened native populations.

A consumer looking to buy cruelty-free fish should try to establish the "stocking density" under which they were reared. Farmed salmon which come mainly from Scotland are reared intensively and then packed into cages at densities of 20-25kg of fish per cubic metre of water. According to Compassion in World Farming, Sainsbury's and Somerfield have increased their stocking densities at last count; M&S and Waitrose boast the lowest densities.

There is also concern surrounding the methods by which farmed animals are slaughtered, which the RSPCA claims can cause the fish intense stress. Common practices include asphyxiation in air and on ice, and gill-cutting without prior stunning. Recently, though, there have been improvements in how trout and salmon are slaughtered. Around one-third of the salmon for Asda, Co-op and Sainsbury's are stunned with carbon dioxide before their gills are cut, a method condemned by animal-rights organisations.

Playing devil's advocate for the fish-farming industry, it is of course important to stress that wild fish that end up on supermarket shelves are either line-caught or scooped up in nets before being dumped in the hold of a trawler to suffocate. This is hardly more humane than the methods of slaughter employed with farmed fish. In addition, eating farmed fish prevents endangered wild fish from being further threatened. Meanwhile, some people believe that normal animal-welfare standards should not be applied to fish at all, arguing that, as cold-blooded animals, fish are unable to experience either distress or pain. Scientists are at best divided about the merits of this argument.

Consumers looking to buy guilt-free fish should avoid threatened wild species, and go organic when buying farmed ones.

Goats

Billy Goat Gruff does not form part of the British diet, so there are only a few hundred thousand, rather than millions, on these shores.

The growing popularity of goats' cheese, however, together with changing demographics the meat features in both Islamic and Caribbean diets means that goat farming is an expanding sector of the British agricultural industry.

"More goats are eaten in the world than anything else," says Peter Jimman, a vet who advised Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. "In Britain, we have a population that travels around the world, comes home, and says, 'Why can't we have that here?' So increased demand for the meat is being driven by the consumer."

The main welfare issue surrounding goats is that they are browsers, which enjoy picking around through branches, rather than grazers, such as sheep, which eat grass from pasture with their heads down.

Since goats are often kept indoors in the UK, this "browsing" behaviour is limited. In addition, they normally inhabit barns with straw on the ground, so they can be prone to lameness. Animals kept for milk production are also susceptible to mastitis.

"All our product is branded and we put a lot of information on the packaging, relating to the good conditions in which the goats are kept," says Angus Wielkopolski, a partner at St Helen's Farm, which supplies goats' milk and cheese to major supermarkets. "Goats respond well to husbandry and feeding, so it's in our interest to look after them well." He denies that keeping goats inside is cruel, adding: "They detest the British weather."

Perhaps the thorniest area of ethics with regard to goats concerns the manner of their slaughter. Because a huge proportion of the market for goat meat comes from the Islamic community, most of the goats produced for meat in this country are sent for halal slaughter, a process that some animal-welfare organisations describe as unacceptable.

In halal slaughter the method used by both Jews and Muslims the animal is killed with a single cut to the throat, then left to bleed. This results in a slower and more painful death than standard abbatoir methods, where the animal is first stunned with an electric current, or immediately killed with a bolt through the head.

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