I got such lovely feedback on my ethical eggs post that I thought I would expand upon it and share a guide on how to choose ethical meat as well. Now, obviously I don’t actually eat meat, but I know a lot of my lovely readers do, so hopefully you find this helpful!
Unfortunately, just like eggs, labelling of meat products is not well regulated and can be mighty confusing, so today I want to break down some of the more commonly used terms and explain what they mean, and what are the best options are to choose. It may seem weird for a vegetarian to be talking about what meat to buy, but while I think the less meat everyone eats the better, I also know that not everyone wants to be vegetarian. I also think the more informed people are about their meat the better, so that’s why I decided that this post was important to write. I’m going to cover pork, beef & lamb and chicken so, here we go!
Currently approximately 97% of Australian pork products come from factory-farmed pigs, where the pigs spend their whole lives in tiny, cramped sheds with no access to the outdoors. Slowly, changes are being made to the industry with sow stalls being phased out across Australia at present (well, by 2017). Sow stalls are where the breeding pigs are kept, and currently they can be as small as just 1cm longer and wider than the size of the pig, so phasing these out is a great step forward (although they will still be used for up to 11 weeks of each pregnancy), with Coles going even further and has already made their Coles branded pork products sow-stall free.
The next step will be to phase out farrowing crates, which can be legally as small as 1 square metre, allowing the sow to stand but not turn around. The sows are put in these cages a week before they give birth and are kept in them until the piglets are weaned (at approximately 4 weeks old). There hasn’t been any movement from the wider industry to phase this out as yet.
There are other better options however, and these are the most common terms to look out for:
This is a term used predominantly for pork, and is rather misleading as it makes it sound like the pigs are left to happily roam around paddocks and wallow in mud, but unfortunately that’s not quite the case. What it does mean is that the breeding pigs are free range and their piglets are born in a free range environment, but are then moved indoors to be raised, generally at around 3-5 weeks of age. The problem is the indoor environment can range from large shelters with room for the piglets to roam around with straw bedding, to small pens with concrete floors, which is the conventional, intensive pig farming system. Anything displaying the RSPCA Bred-Free Range logo comes from farms that use the less intensive indoor shelters, so is a safer option than anything that is purely labelled ‘bred-free range’ without any certification.
Free-Range & Organic
For pork to be properly certified as free-range the pigs must have been free to roam in paddocks, with access to huts and shelters, for the entirety of their lives. Some free-range certification systems also don’t allow tail-docking and teeth-clipping, but that’s not consistent across the board. There’s also no legal definition in Australia for ‘free-range’ at the moment, so the amount of space available to the pigs can differ somewhat as well. Look out for pork products with the ‘Humane Choice’ logo as they have some of the best free-range standards (10 sows per hectare) in Australia.
Anything with a certified organic label, such as Australian Certified Organic or NASAA Certified Organic is also a good choice as it means that not only have the pigs been fed organic feed but they have also met the strongest free-range standards.
Beef & Lamb
Most beef and lamb in Australia that is raised for meat is kept in ‘feedlots’ which can vary significantly by producer as to how much space they are given and how clean their environment is. There is currently no RSPCA-endorsed beef or lamb scheme which can make choosing these products even trickier. So, here’s what you can look out for:
Free-Range & Organic
As with pork products, free-range guarantees are limited unless using a recognised certification process. Some free-range accreditations for sheep allow mulesing (the removal of skin near the tail of a sheep) and tail-docking, although any lamb certified by Humane Choice will be free from those practices.
Anything with a certified organic label will ensure the animals weren’t fed pesticide-treated pasture and weren’t given growth-promoting drugs. It also means that they were truly free-range. Unfortunately given the lack of controls around the use of the word ‘organic’ there is nothing to stop producers labelling their produce as organic even without following those guidelines, so it really is key to look out for third-party certification and to ask questions of your butcher if you’re not sure. Much like pork, organisations like Australian Certified Organic, NASAA Certified Organic are good options, as are AUS-QUAL Limited and Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers.
Grass fed beef has become increasingly popular in recent years as not only is the meat supposed to be tastier, but it gives the impression the cattle were free to roam in pastures their entire lives. This is not always the case however, with some farms grass-feeding but then grain-finishing their cattle (so putting them in a feedlot for the last 90 or so days). A certification process has been introduced by the Cattle Council of Australia, so look out for beef that is labelled ‘Certified Pasturefed’ as this means the cattle were free to roam in pastures their entire lives and were never intensively fed. Organic beef will already meet these requirements, but it’s definitely a great step forward to provide some clarity around the grass-fed labelling.
Unlike chickens raised for eggs, the chickens raised for meat are not kept in battery cages. They are however still kept in barns which still brings with it animal welfare concerns such as the amount of space provided to the chickens (up to 20 birds per square metre in conventional farms), the health problems that occur from selectively breeding chickens for rapid growth and issues such as beak-trimming.
RSPCA has two separate standards for chickens, indoor & outdoor. The outdoor (or free-range) certification I will touch on in a minute, but the indoor controls just requires a slightly lower number of chickens per square metre (up to 17), slightly stricter controls on how much artificial light the chickens can be exposed to, which speeds up growth (20 hours as opposed to the 23 hours which is allowed under factory farming conditions), as well as the requirement that the chickens are given small bales of straw for environmental enrichment. So, if you see the RSPCA logo on a chicken product be sure to check for the words “free range” or “outdoor” as well, if you wish to avoid the indoor farmed chickens.
Free-range chickens are given access to the outdoors, although the density of chickens per hectare can vary significantly by certification standards, with up to 170,000 birds per hectare allowable under RSPCA free-range standards, and no densities set by FREPA standards. The number of chickens per square metre when inside the sheds can vary as well, with 15 birds the maximum for FREPA and 17 for RSPCA.
This is still a huge step up from factory farming practices, so look out for certified free-range logos from FREPA, RSPCA or Humane Choice when you next buy chicken.
Be careful of products labelled ‘cage-free’, as this is used to try and appear like the chickens were treated more kindly, however as I mentioned, chickens for meat are never kept in cages, so it means absolutely nothing in this context! ‘Free-to-roam’ is another somewhat deceiving term that is sometimes used by producers to describe factory farmed chickens to try and sound closer to ‘free-range’ than they actually are.
Certified organic chickens will be free to roam outside at much lower densities than free-range birds (up to 2,500 birds per hectare) and the indoor standards are much stronger as well, with just 5-12 birds allowed per square metre (depending on the organic certification system). They are also likely to be provided with things like perches inside the sheds (again, depending on the system) to enrich the environment for the birds.
The other benefit of buying certified organic chicken is the certainty over what they have, and haven’t, been fed. They will be free from growth hormones and fed organic feed, as well as being able to keep their beaks, toes and snoods (the fold of skin over their beak) intact. Australian Certified Organic and NASAA Certified Organic are the logos to look out for here as well.