How to guarantee you're buying ethically farmed meat.
By Dan Shearman
Over the past decade of working as a nose to tail chef I've had many, many conversations with vegans and vegetarians about the reasons behind their decision not eat meat. Now of course a large proportion make the decision due their love of animals and their repudiation to view them as food, and I respect that, completely. However, a common pattern that emerges time and time again is that people feel they just can't be sure how to guarantee the meat they consume has been raised ethically and that animal has lived the best possible life.
Supermarkets are truly a bewildering swamp of bullshit and deceit on many levels - especially when it comes to meat. One simple way of guaranteeing that you buy ethical meat is to avoid the supermarket all together and visit a good butcher, ask them where the meat was farmed and how it was raised. I like to go one step further and bring up google satellite images of the farm to ensure I can see the animals living outside, much like I did for a recent whole pig catering event - "ah look.. there they are!".
Don’t have a good local butcher? There are plenty of options online to purchase ethically farmed meat from great butcheries or often straight from the farm itself. Two great options are Pipers Farm in Cullompton, just north of Exeter and Coombe Farm in Somerset, both rearing grass fed animals out in the open, not in cages or crowded barns, so they're properly free-range.
If supermarkets are your preferred places to purchase meat (we get it life is hectic and convenience rules) then check out the below guide from Compassion in World Farming and you can never go far wrong by choosing to buy meat with a Soil Association label - their standards cover every aspect of an animal’s life, including living conditions, feed, use of medicines, transportation and slaughter.
If you eat meat, the simplest thing you can do to help is to buy free-range chicken and poultry, free-range pork (or make sure it’s outdoor bred & reared) and grass-fed beef and lamb.
Cheap meat usually comes at a price – one paid by the farm animals and often the environment too.
Remember the meat in meals when you eat out. Don’t be afraid to ask staff in restaurants whether meat is free-range and where it has come from. If they can’t tell you then you’re in the wrong restaurant.
ORGANIC: Organic production can offer animals higher welfare. In the UK organic pigs are outdoor reared (with access to straw bedded huts or tents and large paddocks). Sows and boars are kept in outdoor systems throughout life.
Be aware, organic in other countries does not necessarily mean the same as for the UK. Organic pigs may only have access to an outdoor run in some European countries.
FREE-RANGE: Whilst there is no legal definition of ‘free-range pork’ we believe this should mean pigs who are born and reared in outdoor systems throughout their lives, with permanent access to pasture.
As from 1st January 2013, individual stall housing for dry sows beyond a period of 4 weeks after service is no longer permissible in any EU Member State. Compliance however is low in some countries.
Sow stalls have been fully banned (i.e. throughout the entire gestation period) and not used in the UK since 1999. However, farrowing crates can still be used and pigs may be reared indoors in intensive systems without bedding. UK assurance schemes do not permit castration but allow tooth clipping and tail docking under certain circumstances.
OUTDOOR BRED: 'Outdoor bred' means the pigs are born in outdoor systems in straw bedded arks with access to a large outdoor paddock. The pigs are brought indoors for growing and finishing at or shortly after weaning - usually into straw bedded systems in large airy barns or purpose built buildings. The growing and finishing system should be clearly stated on the label. The sows remain in the outdoor system throughout their life.
OUTDOOR REARED: 'Outdoor reared' means the pigs are born and then reared in outdoor systems for around half their lives. During this time they may not necessarily have access to pasture, but will have access to an outside pen and a straw bedded tent or ark. The sows remain in the outdoor system throughout their life.
HIGHER WELFARE INDOOR SYSTEMS: If you buy any pig meat product (for example pork, bacon, sausages or ham) from pigs reared indoors look for 'straw bedded' or 'deep bedded' on the packaging. Straw is very important for pigs; it provides opportunities to root and forage, so that they don’t get bored. Bored and frustrated pigs can bite each other’s tails and causes farmers to tail dock piglets – a painful procedure carried out without anaesthetic. Straw is also good for thermal comfort.
Check the ingredients of sandwiches, ready-meals etc. – unless it says the pork, bacon, ham or sausage used is free-range, outdoor bred or reared it probably isn’t.
BEEF & LAMB
Most British beef cattle and lambs are reared outdoors and have access to pasture. However, the only way of being sure is to look for ‘organic’, ‘grass-fed’ or ‘access to pasture’ on packaging.
The Soil Association organic standard guarantees that cattle and lambs are given access to pasture.
When you’re eating out ask how the beef and lamb on the menu was reared and whether it’s British.
Chickens and turkeys are bred to grow so fast their bones, heart and lungs often can’t keep up, causing crippling lameness or heart failure. They don’t get to go outside and big chicken farms can house up to 50,000 birds into one shed.
Free range chicken, turkeys and ducks have access to the outdoors with a more stimulating environment and are given more space in their shed which houses significantly fewer numbers of animals.
Higher welfare indoor alternatives to standard production are available which provide the birds with more space, natural light, and a more stimulating environment.
When you’re eating out ask if the chicken on your plate or in your sandwich is free-range.
If you can’t afford free-range look for the RSPCA Assured standard which gives birds a better quality of life than the Red Tractor farm-assured scheme. Some retailers have their own higher welfare indoor standards too.