Consuming Issues: What that tiny Red Tractor logo on meat means

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So we're in the meat aisle, and the steaks and pork chops have this Red Tractor logo, which says "Assured Farm Standards". All supermarkets display the Red Tractor: mostly on meat and poultry but also on cereals, and even cans of Carling lager, where it patriotically reveals the barley comes from Britain. But what does the tractor, which sits on a Union flag, mean?

According to the Assured Farm Standards Board, which represents the mark's owners who include the National Farmers' Union and British Retail Consortium, the Red Tractor guarantees safe, quality food that meets animal welfare standards. In reality, the scheme, celebrating its 10th anniversary, does little more than meet the law and is primarily a marketing tool for British farming.

Now, supporting British farming is worthwhile, because local produce travels less far, making it fresher and less polluting. And farmers are stewards of the countryside (sometimes) and theirs is a tough job.

While supermarkets import masses of chicken and pork, the tractor means the meat before you is not the very cheapest stuff from Brazil or Thailand. But in its low and mean-minded animal welfare standards, the Red Tractor is a shocker. Anyone thinking it somehow means a good life for farm animals should take a reality check: it does not.

Take the most-eaten meat: chicken. At Red Tractor farms, you can cram 38kg of chickens into a square metre, against 39kg by law – the equivalent to about 20 chickens per square metre. The RSPCA's Freedom Foods and Soil Association organic schemes allow more space, respectively 30 and 21 to 30kg a square metre. Red Tractor allows the use of fast-growing chickens, such as the Ross 308, whose bodies swell too large for their legs, leaving some barely able to waddle.

Pigs on Red Tractor farms can be kept on fully slated concrete floors, when the best material is straw. And unlike RSPCA and organic rules, farmers can cut off their tails without anaesthetic, in order to prevent them nibbling each other, which could damage the cargo. I could go on.

Overall, thanks to logos like the Red Tractor, the picture for animal welfare is still depressingly bad, but, hearteningly, it is improving. Despite facing a barrage of confusing labelling, shoppers are seeking out less cruel meat. In the year to March, sales of cage-free eggs rose by 10 per cent and barn and free-range eggs are more than half of all sales.

Shoppers bought 46 per cent more higher-welfare chicken in the last year, and one in five chickens is now higher welfare, showing the lasting impact of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken Out campaign two years ago.

While backing the Red Tractor, some supermarkets have curbed the excesses of intensive farming by promoting less cruel systems. At last week's Compassion in World Farming annual awards, of which The Independent is a media sponsor, Waitrose was named Most Compassionate Supermarket, having come top in almost every category.

Morrisons – the most improved supermarket – was praised for giving sows extra bedding and more space to farmed salmon, while the best large supermarket, Sainsbury's, sells only RSPCA ducks and salmon.

Not everyone can afford free-range or organic, but in my view, Freedom Foods should be the minimum standard shoppers look for. The Red Tractor scheme assures you only that the meat has come from British factory farms, where they grow mutant chickens and cut off pigs' tails without anaesthetic.

Heroes and villains: National Trust shakes off its 'stuffy' image

Hero: National Trust

The keeper of some of Britain's finest properties has been criticised for being stuffy. This week, it launched a range of Top Trumps cards for 30 of its sites, with categories including the number of hauntings and the number of cups of tea sold annually. Strangely, Tyntesfield, the Victorian gothic pile in Somerset, has no ghosts.

Villain: BMW

The German firm has cut emissions for its sporty Z4 35is, but the Advertising Standards Authority this week banned its assurance to potential owners they could step on the accelerator knowing it would "minimise the CO2 emissions". The ASA pointed out emissions of 210 grams of CO2 per kilometre is "relatively high for any car".

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