Free-range labels fail to live up to idyllic image

BY DAVID NICHOLSON-LORD

Consumer Affairs Correspondent

Many meat and dairy products alleged to protect animals' welfare do not live up to their "green" image, according to a report published today.

Research by the Food Commission, an independent consumer watchdog, and the Soil Association, the main independent body promoting organic farming, singles out the RSPCA's "Freedom Food" label, "outdoor-reared" meat, sold by stores such as Sainsbury and Safeway, and "free-range", "barn" or "perchery" eggs.

"Supermarkets have been quick to jump on the green bandwagon, and a bewildering range of labelling schemes, declared environmentally and animal friendly, have appeared," the report, published in the latest issue of Living Earth & The Food Magazine, says.

The labels evoke images of contented animals living in rural bliss, it adds. But the reality "may not always be so idyllic".

Standards vary between the schemes, and many permit practices that are condemned by animal-welfare specialists.

The RSPCA scheme launched last year, adopted by Tesco and the Co-op, concerning eggs, pork and bacon, is supposed to guarantee animals' basic freedoms. Pigs are supposedly allowed to root about and hens to have a quiet nesting area. But eggs carry the symbol even when they are laid by birds that never see natural light. The scheme permits farrowing crates for pigs restricting their movement, cutting the tips off chickens' beaks, docking piglets' tails and the gas-stunning of pigs in slaughter houses.

Outdoor-reared meat sold by Sainsbury, featuring also in Safeway's new "Heritage" meat range, gives the impression the pigs live in fields. The report says that after 70 days outside, the pigs are fattened in open barns.

European regulations on free-range eggs allow birds to be kept in houses where there is no limit on numbers and flocks can exceed 7,000. Artificial light can be used to simulate daylight and encourage birds to lay more.

EU regulations allow producers to keep birds under such crowded conditions that they have to fight for food and space. Animal-welfare campaigners say birds should be kept in flocks of no more than 300, in small houses, with fresh pasture and real freedom to range.

Most "animal-friendly" products carry a price premium. Patrick Holden , the Soil Association's policy director, said these "halfway-house labelling schemes" were "undermining further improvements in animal welfare standards".

Safeway said the criticism was "odd". A spokeswoman said labels stated animals were kept in big barns and it was not claimed meats were organic.

Sainsbury acknowledged its traditional and outdoor-reared meats did not conform to UKROFS, the UK organic regulating agency, but said they were produced to comparable, "very high", welfare standards.

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