Last month, the RSPCA launched what it described as a 'revolutionary new scheme to improve the lives of the millions of farm animals'. Called Freedom Foods, it promised clear information for welfare-minded consumers. No more confusing 'free- range', 'quality assured', 'barn', or 'heritage' labels, just a simple guarantee from a respected national body that here is an egg, a chicken, a piece of meat, that can be eaten with a clear conscience.

'The Freedom Food label,' the RSPCA explained, 'guarantees that the products you buy have been produced from animals reared to the highest practical standards . . . based on the five basic freedoms the RSPCA believes all animals should enjoy: freedom from fear and distress; pain; injury and disease; hunger and thirst; discomfort; and freedom to express normal behaviour.'

The promotional material is illustrated with pictures of pigs in straw and lambs gambolling in green meadows; bucolic landscapes with handsome, stone-built barns silhouetted against a setting sun. What more could the welfare- minded consumer ask for?

Unfortunately, when you get down to the nuts and bolts, the RSPCA's 'revolution' appears to be a very timid one. Despite laudable features (a maximum eight- hour journey time for live animal transportation, for example), the detailed conditions to which farmers are asked to conform reveal that the scheme is only institutionalising better-ish farming practice, not mounting any serious challenge to intensive animal production.

For farmers, the benefits of such a label are obvious: they represent an opportunity to regain some trust from a disillusioned public. 'The independent endorsement provided by the RSPCA will add credibility and value to your products,' states the leaflet aimed at farmers. And no wonder that two large food retailers, Tesco and the Co-op, have been keen to associate themselves with the scheme: more Brownie points in the caring-supermarket league. The benefits to the consumer, on the other hand, are questionable.

So far the RSPCA has produced welfare standards only for pigs and egg-laying hens, although it is envisaged that all farm animals will eventually be covered. But already the contradictions are glaring. It is, for example, possible for eggs to bear the label even when they have been laid by hens that have never experienced fresh air or daylight. The hens may be kept in windowless barns, subdued by dim lighting, with their beaks 'trimmed' to stop them pecking their closely packed neighbours.

De-beaking, as it is more widely termed, is what scientists refer to as a 'mutilation'. It has become standard practice in intensive egg- production systems as a corrective to an activity known as cannibalism (or pecking other birds). Many animal lovers argue that in a welfare-oriented system, such mutilations should be unnecessary. 'There is a whole range of scientific evidence which says that birds only do this because their instinct to forage and dust-bathe is being frustrated. Massive overcrowding and unnatural systems cause such disturbed behaviour,' says Peter Stevenson, of Compassion in World Farming.

The RSPCA, while permitting de-beaking, does note that such a practice is contrary to the principles of Freedom Foods. 'However, at the present time, it is accepted that in colony systems there is a risk of outbreaks of feather pecking which can lead to cannibalism,' it adds.

On other technical points, too, the Freedom Foods standards lag behind established welfare thinking. The Farm Animal Welfare Council reported in 1991, for example, that farmers should provide a square metre of nest box for every 80 hens; yet Freedom Foods permits 50 per cent more birds on the same space.

Although the RSPCA standards exclude chicken batteries, the organisation has not been prepared to insist on free-range conditions: barn and deep-litter systems get the OK. It is hard to see how this equates with 'freedom', and how it fits in with the fifth guiding principle of 'freedom to express normal behaviour'.

I asked Dr Martin Potter, the RSPCA's head of animals, if it is now considered 'abnormal' for a farm animal to experience fresh air and daylight. 'Animals can be kept in very high welfare standards indoors and there can be lots of welfare problems in free-range systems,' he said. 'The reality of farming today is that life outdoors is currently an additional luxury, and something that we cannot insist on as long as we want a scheme which raises the standards of a large number of animals.'

Freedom Foods' pig standards are also problematic. A few improvements are essentially window-dressing, since pigs may still spend all of their short lives indoors in dimly lit, barren conditions. In an overcrowded, unstimulating environment, piglets will often bite off each other's tails in boredom and this can lead to cannibalism. Tail-docking (the porcine equivalent of de-beaking) is against RSPCA principles but reluctantly accepted.

And while the organisation stresses that pigs must not be tethered, it permits use of the farrowing crate in which sows are placed to suckle their young - stalls so narrow that the sows can barely move, the idea being to prevent them crushing their offspring. Active support for outdoor, free- range pig farming is conspicuous by its absence, despite the fact that this is increasingly commercial.

The best industry practice is more ambitious. Safe and business-like Marks & Spencer, for example, has been rearing its fresh pork outdoors since 1985. A spokeswoman said: 'M & S sows give birth outdoors and the young piglets stay outside with their mother until they go inside to be fattened. Tail-docking and tooth- clipping are only permitted in exceptional circumstances and never as a preventative measure.'

The RSPCA justifies its compromises in terms of tactics. Dr Potter said: 'It would be naive to believe that large numbers of people are prepared to pay extremely high prices for the products of some utopian scheme. We admit there are problems with the scheme as it now stands, and we do have end goals in mind which will go further. But like it or not, we have to accept the realities of modern farming.'

These sentiments are echoed in the Freedom Foods leaflet aimed at producers, where, in place of the 'highest practical standards' referred to in the consumer leaflets, its standards are described as 'the minimum acceptable'.

The RSPCA has always loved to be seen as the reasonable voice of the animal-welfare lobby; but, given the strength of consumer concern over the conditions in which so many farm animals are kept, it has missed a golden opportunity to introduce a clear welfare label that we can trust, despite Dr Potter's claim that the Freedom Foods label is 'far more honest than aid-welfare food labelling to date.'

Many packs of bacon and boxes of eggs from dubious sources will qualify for the label, thus taking on a new and more profitable identity. It is an unfortunate muddying of the waters that we would be better without.

(Photograph omitted)