Behind the label: Shop more ethically

Behind the label Liz Earle Wellbeing springChoosing the food we put on our plates is one of the most important health decisions we make every day, and for some of us it’s also a way to exercise our views on how we think food should be produced.

One of Liz’s very first campaigns was to co-found FLAG, the Food Labelling Agenda back in 1997 at a time when GM-ingredients started to appear unannounced in everyday foods. Liz took a petition to 10 Downing Street with over a million signatures on it calling for clearer and more meaningful food labelling. Since then, other high- profile advocators such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, among others, have significantly raised the profile of questions around food provenance and production. However, recent research commissioned by Labelling Matters shows that most of us are still likely to misinterpret the information we’re given about the farming methods used for meat and dairy products. So we’re all becoming more aware of the issues involved in our weekly shop, but it remains difficult to be sure that what we’re buying has been treated with the levels of welfare we expect.

The Labelling Matters campaign is pushing for labels on meat and dairy produce to explain how the animal lived and, of course, died. The British Veterinary Association is in support of this campaign and has said that clearer welfare labels could give British farmers and food producers a unique selling point.

At the moment, consumers are told about good animal welfare, such as outdoor-reared or grass-fed, but there’s no marked system for lower-welfare products. Meanwhile, Labelling Matters informs us that a fifth of British dairy cows are kept inside so that the farmer can control their diet and maximise milk production. Over half of the pigs reared for meat are also kept inside for their whole lives.

The proposed new labels will read ‘permanently housed’ for dairy cows that never go outside, ‘intensive indoor’ to mean giving the animal the minimum legal space required, and ‘higher welfare indoor’, which includes life enrichment such as perches for chickens and straw beds for pigs. With these labels, the welfare of the animals will be more closely monitored and they’ll also inform us that the animal died a humane death, including being stunned before slaughter.

Since the EU introduced the labelling of eggs to declare whether they are from caged hens, barn eggs, free-range or organic in 1999, the production of eggs laid by cage-free birds has risen from 31 per cent to 50 per cent, which shows the change such labelling can help bring about.

So what can we do to be sure of where our food is coming from? Buying organic is a good place to start – it not only ensures higher welfare for the animal; it also means that fewer nasties end up on our plate. Organic is more expensive, but choosing to eat good-quality meat less often is one way to make this work.

Also look out for grass-fed meat – research shows that meat from animals allowed to graze outdoors contains more essential nutrients. With regards to milk, 2015 saw the introduction of a new free-range label, helping us know that the cows which produced it have space to roam around outside.

Be a label detective – here’s what to look for:

  • Free-range dairy comes from cows with the freedom to graze outdoors for at least six months a year and a diet of not less than 60 per cent forage.
  • Grass-fed shows the animal has been able to enjoy the grasses, wild flowers and herbs that are part of its natural diet, and that it has spent significant time outside with plenty of space.
  • Organic means high welfare standards covering living conditions (always free range), food quality, the use of antibiotics (not routinely used), transport and slaughter.
  • Outdoor bred breeding cows have access to pasture for their whole lives, and meat pigs until weaning.
  • Outdoor reared breeding cows have access to pasture for their whole lives, and meat pigs for half of their lives.
  • Pasture for life ensures the animal has had nothing but its mother’s milk and forage for its whole life.
  • The British Lion Quality mark on eggs shows the hen that laid it has been vaccinated against salmonella and meets the highest food safety standards.
  • The Red Tractor logo tells you where the food has been farmed and processed. When it has a Union Jack flag, it is 100 per cent British. The logo also means animals have adequate space, well-balanced meals, and that their health is regularly checked.
  • RSPCA Assured animals have more space, natural lighting and comfortable bedding.
  • The Soil Association logo is the ‘gold standard’ of all certification bodies and indicates the highest level of animal welfare. It appears on 70 per cent of all organic produce in the UK.