Supermarkets. The smell of baking bread; bright, welcoming lights; aisles piled high with jars, tins and attractive packages. Labels suggesting quality entice and reassure.
But there is duplicity at hand. Take pork. 'Outdoor-bred' means that piglets will have been born outside - in arks (individual housing) with straw bedding. But after just a few weeks they are taken away and put into intensive units for the rest of their lives - 4-7 months if they are for fresh pork; 6- 9 months for bacon. In other words 'Outdoor-bred' means outdoor-born but then weaned unnaturally early. If they had spent all their lives outside, this would have been made very clear on the packaging. And another deceit. Imported pig meat that is made into different products in the UK
- like bacon or ham by curing - can be labelled 'product of the UK', even though it isn't.
Then there are the labels that pronounce 'Farm fresh'? In this sense eggs from caged hens are 'Farm fresh'.
And 'Free-range'? There are several standards. Some guidelines permit flocks of 16,000 for laying hens: that means some birds might never get outside. However all free-range hens have nesting areas (the urge to nest is so compelling that even in battery cages hens go through a ghastly, fruitless attempt to find privacy to lay). Nevertheless stress-related behaviour like feather pecking is widespread and consequently de-beaking common. 'Free-range' is not as free as the image implies.
And what of the farm assurance schemes - like 'Farm Assured', 'British Farm Standard', 'Little Red Tractor' or 'Lion Quality'? These logos represent an alliance of farmers and processors. They endorse all the intensive production practices like battery systems for hens; farrowing crates for sows; poultry crammed densely into sheds; and all the cruelty built into the factory farming system. In other words they guarantee nothing more than the UK and EU legal minimum standard for farm animal welfare.
Then there is RSPCA 'Freedom Food'. Freedom refers not to free-range but to the RSPCA's "Five Freedoms": Freedom from fear and distress; hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury and disease; and the freedom to express normal behaviour. Critics of Freedom Food say these overall welfare standards are little different from other indoor systems. But at least Freedom Food ducks have enough water to dip their heads (though not to swim); hens have nesting boxes; and meat chickens a little more space than the basic guidelines advise along with 'enriched' environments like straw bales to jump on. However the Freedom Food scheme also allows farrowing crates for sows.
Some welfare critics argue that claims of higher welfare standards are more about making consumers feel better than any meaningful welfare improvements.
Organic labels particularly appeal to those who consider a high standard of animal welfare important. Organic standards for pork, beef and lamb probably come up to expectations. But some organic certifiers (there are several) permit 9,000 hens to a flock which critics say contradict the organic ethos that animals should live free and natural lives. Organic milk production is usually as intensive as conventional milk production and shares many practices in common: artificial insemination; removing calves from their mothers soon after birth; shooting unwanted new born calves; and selling calves on to conventional veal farms.
The organic travesty continues with fish, most notably salmon. Wild salmon live solitary lives swimming alone for thousands of miles in the open ocean. But EU law prohibits calling wild-caught fish organic. That means organic Atlantic salmon is farmed. And farmed means caged - the antithesis of the freedom that most people associate with organic certification. 'Thriving in wild pristine waters' says one label. The reality is that the fish swim endlessly round and round in sea-cages contaminated with their own excrement.
Supermarket packaging often shows pictures of happy animals in natural surroundings. Yet the overwhelming majority are reared on an industrial scale which by definition belies this image. Fed fast-fattening diets, with no space to exercise, animals grow unnaturally quickly. The result is flabby, flavourless meat. But flavours can be added and the lack of texture masked by processing. The proof is in the eating - and price the quality indicator. Cheap bacon can be up to 30% water and laden with chemicals; salt the dominating flavour. Cheap pies, pasties and processed meals are similarly awash with additives and flavourings and thickened with modified starches.
Premium labels like 'Traditional', 'Finest', 'Heritage','Extra-aged' or 'Corn-fed' are do with presentation and processing and nothing to do - unless described otherwise - with how the animals have been reared.
Secrecy is built into commercial farming practice. The vast agri-businesses - the industrial-scale farms, the food processors, the farm assurance schemes, the supermarkets - are all in it together. The misery of animals is inherent. Is this the biggest confidence trick of all?Suggest a correction