Research shows that most consumers can't currently tell which farm system has been used to produce their food – and yet more than three-quarters of us want to see mandatory method of production labelling extended to all meat and dairy products. In the UK for example, 83% of consumers want mandatory method of production labels extended, while in France this demand rises to 92%.
Importantly, mandatory method of production labelling works. We know this because it has been in place for eggs sold in the EU since 2004. As a result, the percentage of cage-free egg-laying hens in the EU has increased from 19.7% in 2003 to 44.7% in 2014.
In the UK there is a voluntary method of production labelling scheme for higher welfare pork, which has been in place since 2010. Now, over 42% of UK pigs are born outside, kept outside until weaning, and then usually transferred to good indoor deep straw systems.
Confusing labels distort the marketplace
Recent research has provided compelling evidence that, based on the label alone, most consumers, even those who feel they have ‘a reasonable, basic knowledge’ or ‘a good knowledge’ about ‘how farm animals are kept and reared’, are likely to misinterpret the farming method used for meat and dairy products. Most consumers are unable to identify from the label how the animals that provided the meat or dairy products were farmed, such as whether they were kept outdoors, indoors with good facilities, or in basic conditions, or in a mixture of these systems.
This research demonstrates that consumers are confused, explicitly or implicitly, over the farm systems used to produce their meat and dairy foods. This is important because labels influence consumer behaviour directly at point of sale. Confusing labels have a significant adverse economic impact on those producers operating to higher welfare standards because they undermine natural consumer preferences, preventing the market place from operating efficiently.
The research indicates that the market place for higher welfare animal products in the EU is unhelpfully distorted, against higher welfare meat and dairy products, by the widespread use of confusing labels for meat and dairy products from systems likely to result in lower welfare.
The widespread existence of confusing labels undermines the competitiveness of higher welfare brands and disincentivises new entrants, further improvements, and innovation.
Consumers cannot play their part in delivering improvements
Intensive farming is now the norm for key food species in the EU. Reasonable estimates suggest that around 90% of pigs reared for meat in the EU are housed in barren systems. Similarly around 90% of meat chickens in the EU are produced in standard intensive systems. The dairy picture is more complex, but statistics show that dairy farming is becoming more intensive, which in some countries is often associated with an increase in the time spent indoors and zero-grazing.
While farming methods have changed, public perceptions of farm systems have not kept pace. As the research above shows, there now appears to be a strong disconnect between people’s assumptions about European farming systems and the methods of production actually employed by most European farmers.
As well as affecting farm incomes this market distortion represents a significant challenge to European Commission ambitions for farm animal welfare, as described in the EU Animal Welfare Strategy 2012-2015. The strategy emphasises the EU’s intention to increase transparency and the provision of adequate information – empowering consumers to make informed choices in order that the market can drive further improvements in farm animal welfare.
The guiding principle of the strategy is that ‘everyone is responsible’. However, it is very difficult for consumers to drive improvements in animal welfare if they are unable to accurately identify the farming system used to produce meat and dairy products for purchase.
The role of retailers
Retailers play an important role in cushioning citizens from external economic pressures by helping to keep prices low. They have also become increasingly important in setting standards, and directing supply. Retailers have successfully stepped into the role formerly adopted by government, but while they can interpret consumer demands powerfully, they do so through the prism of their own business models.
For the majority of farmers, large retailers are the adopted route to market, and the label remains the primary means of communicating with consumers. Confusing labelling undermines simple conversations about quality and value, reducing the competitiveness of higher welfare products, and dampening the market’s ability to deliver economic growth.
Case study – EU egg labelling rules
The mandatory EU egg labelling rules provide a successful labelling precedent, using terms that are short and easily understood by consumers. Under these rules, egg packs must be labelled ‘eggs from caged hens’, ‘barn eggs’ or ‘free range eggs’.
Commission figures show the proportion of cage-free egg-laying hens in Europe rose from 19.7% in 2003 to 42.2% in 2012. The remarkable rise in the production of cage-free eggs suggests that consumers are reacting positively to the availability of clear information as to farming method. Independent research found an average recognition rate of 59% among European consumers in 2013.
The European Commission has officially recognised the link between increased sales of higher welfare eggs and mandatory labelling since 2004. It has also recognised that the labelling scheme allows consumer-supported price differentiation.
Case study – UK pork labelling
In the UK, voluntary method of production labelling of pork products has facilitated substantial growth in higher welfare pigmeat, and led to greater overall value of the UK pork market.
A voluntary code of practice for labelling pork products was introduced in the UK by the British Pig Executive (industry trade body) in 2010. Prior to this date the labelling terms ‘outdoor bred’, ‘outdoor reared’ and ‘free range’ had been used for some pork products by food retailers. However, without consistency or clear definitions this had led to confusion amongst consumers as to what farming systems they were supporting when buying pork labelled with these terms. The voluntary code of practice introduced clear definitions for these terms, setting out key elements of the farming systems they described. This information was made available to the public on a website (porkprovenance.co.uk) and all major retailers in the UK signed up to applying the definitions when using the labels on their own brand products. Each of these methods of production has better welfare potential than intensive indoor pig farming. Around 40% of UK pigs are now born outdoors and assured as ‘outdoor bred’, ‘outdoor reared’, ‘free-range’, or ‘organic’. Around a third are assured by the RSPCA scheme, Freedom Food.
The scheme is successful because it has been adopted on a whole industry basis, meaning it operates as though it were mandatory.
The Anderson’s report to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2015 noted that, ‘40% of UK pigs are reared outdoors, involving higher costs which is unique to the UK pig herd, but also attract[ing] premium prices.’
McDonalds restaurants have also recognised consumer interest in higher welfare, and the importance of this market. In the UK, McDonalds only uses RSPCA Assured pork from pigs reared under RSPCA standards.
We believe that even greater market penetration could be achieved for UK pork products from outdoor systems, if indoor intensive systems were also labelled. This would provide complete transparency, and enable consumers to make a full and fair comparison.
Importantly, the UK voluntary labelling initiative only applies to pork products sold in Britain. This indicates that there is substantial room for growth in pork sales from outdoor production systems in all other Member States. However, to achieve this level of success in all Member States, we believe mandatory labelling, agreed at Commission level, will be necessary.
Underpinned by robust outcome-based assessments
We believe method of production labelling should be underpinned by robust welfare outcome-based assessments. These objectively measure welfare and provide a mechanism that can give reassurance that systems generally felt to be associated with higher welfare (outdoor and extensive indoor systems) are indeed delivering good welfare.
In the UK the AssureWel project is already delivering robust affordable welfare outcome assessments as part of existing farm assurance schemes, such as Soil Association and Freedom Food and Red Tractor. More information about welfare outcome assessment can be found on their website.