Guide to Pork Labelling

Guide to Pork Labelling

Common Labels

You can buy pork with high animal welfare labels in most supermarkets. Look for the more common labels, such as Outdoor Bred, RSPCA Assured, Free Range or best of all Organic. Pork with these labels has been raised on high welfare farms, almost certainly in the UK. You can also ask for high welfare at your local butcher, or better still shop at your local farmers’ market, find high welfare online, or join a box scheme. If you’re eating out, ask if the meat is from a high welfare farm.

Welfare Comparison Chart

Organic5-starsFree range4-starsRSPCA Assured3-starsOutdoor bred2-starsRed Tractor2-starsNo label0-stars
Housing
labelling-housing
Pigs can roam freely between outdoors and shelter Pigs can roam freely between outdoors and shelter Pigs may be kept permanently indoors but with enhanced space allowances. Fully slatted floors not permitted Sows can roam between outdoors and shelter. Piglets are fattened indoors after weaning Pigs often kept permanently indoors on bare concrete slats. Sow stalls not allowedPigs mostly kept permanently indoors on bare concrete slats.
Bedding
labelling-bedding
Shelters or barns must have adequate beddingShelters or barns must have adequate bedding Straw or similar bedding must be provided, verified by regular RSPCA inspectionsShelters or barns must have adequate bedding Pigs often kept with no straw or other bedding Pigs often kept with no straw or other bedding
Antibiotics
labelling-antibiotics
Permitted to treat illness, but very rarely required, long withdrawal period before slaughterPermitted to treat illness, but very rarely requiredProvision of bedding and extra space means pigs are healthier and require less antibioticsRarely required for sows, piglets usually given antibiotics after weaningRoutine over-use of antibiotics widespreadRoutine over-use of antibiotics widespread
Farrowing crates
labelling-farrowing
Not permittedNot usedNot permittedNot usedSows can be confined to narrow steel farrowing crates, unable to turn around for 5 weeks in each farrowing cycleSows can be confined to narrow steel sow stalls & farrowing crates, unable to turn around for 5 weeks in each farrowing cycle
Nesting
labelling-nesting
Sows can roam, root, socialise and nest according to their natural instinctsSows can roam, root, socialise and nest according to their natural instinctsSows must be given adequate amounts of straw or similar materialSows can roam, root, socialise and nest according to their natural instinctsPigs commonly kept with no or ineffective environmental enrichmentPigs commonly kept with no or ineffective environmental enrichment
Tail docking
labelling-taildocking
Not permittedNot necessary because pigs kept outdoors are not stressed and do not bite each other’s tailsPermitted with permission from RSPCA, and only if the causes of tail biting are addressedNot necessary because sows kept outdoors are not stressed and do not bite each other’s tails. Pigs fattened indoors often routinely tail docked (illegal)Widespread routine (illegal) tail dockingWidespread routine (illegal) tail docking
Feed
labelling-gmfeed
No GM feed allowed. Locally grown feed encouraged GM feed allowed GM feed allowed GM feed allowed GM feed allowed GM feed allowed
Feeding space
labelling-feedingspace
Feed spread outdoors or in troughsFeed spread outdoors or in troughsEnhanced space allowancesFeed spread outdoors or in troughsUK legal minimumEU legal minimum
Weaning
labelling-weaning
No earlier than 40 daysUsually later weaning, up to 42-56 daysNo earlier than 21 daysNo earlier than 21 daysNo earlier than 21 daysNo earlier than 21 days
This is where we draw our bottom line

Download the labelling comparison chart… and put it on your fridge!

What to Look for on Pork Packaging

Organic

Both breeding sows and fattening pigs can roam freely between outdoors and shelter their entire lives. They have access to straw bedded huts for shelter, but are always free to roam and forage for a natural diet. Piglets are weaned no earlier than 40 days, meaning they have much more time with their mothers than in intensive systems. The use of any GM pig feed is banned, this means that the pig feed is likely to be locally supplied and sustainable grown.

NB. The ‘Soil Association Organic Standard’ is one of only a few schemes that chooses to “set it’s standards even higher than the minimum EU organic requirements”.

Free Range

Both breeding sows and fattening pigs can roam freely between outdoors and shelter their entire lives. They have access to straw bedded huts for shelter, but are always free to roam and forage for a natural diet. Piglets are usually weaned at 7-8 weeks. There is no official logo for free range, so look for the words ‘free range’ on the packaging.

RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Reared

Breeding sows are free range meaning that they can roam freely between outdoors and shelter for their whole lives and are never confined in metal cages. Sows have access to large bedded huts that provide shelter and a dry lying area. Sows give birth to their litters outdoors in individual straw-bedded shelters called arcs from which they come and go freely. The fattening pigs are moved indoors into light and airy straw-based systems, rather than intensive systems after weaning (up to ten weeks).

RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred

Breeding sows are free range meaning that they can roam freely between outdoors and shelter for their whole lives and are never confined in metal cages. Sows have access to large bedded huts that provide shelter and a dry lying area. Sows give birth to their litters outdoors in individual straw-bedded shelters called arcs from which they come and go freely. The fattening pigs are moved indoors into light and airy straw-based systems, rather than intensive systems after weaning (around four weeks).

RSPCA Assured

The scheme covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems. Pigs that are permanently indoors have more space to move and are provided with material such as straw to root around in. Breeding sows are never confined in metal cages and are given enough room and straw to build nests. Teeth clipping, nose ringing and tail docking are not permitted except in exceptional circumstances.

rspca-assured-label

Outdoor Reared

Breeding sows are free range meaning that they can roam freely between outdoors and shelter for their whole lives and are never confined in metal cages. Sows have access to large bedded huts that provide shelter and a dry lying area. Sows give birth to their litters outdoors in individual straw-bedded shelters called arcs from which they come and go freely. The piglets are free-range with their mothers until weaning (up to ten weeks), when they are moved indoors. Piglets are likely moved into an intensive system post-weaning unless the RSPCA Assured logo is present as well. There is no official logo for outdoor reared, so look for the words ‘outoor reared‘ on the packaging.

Outdoor Bred

Breeding sows are free range meaning that they can roam freely between outdoors and shelter for their whole lives and are never confined in crates. Sows have access to large bedded huts that provide shelter and a dry lying area. Sows give birth to their litters outdoors in individual straw-bedded shelters called arcs from which they come and go freely. The piglets are free-range with their mothers until weaning (around four weeks), when they are moved indoors. Piglets are likely moved into an intensive system post-weaning unless the RSPCA logo is present as well. There is no official logo for outdoor bred, so look for the words ‘outoor bred‘ on the packaging.

Red Tractor Assured Food Standards

There is very little difference between Red Tractor and the legal minimum UK production requirements. It allows for intensive production and is not a ‘guarantee’ of good animal welfare. Breeding sows are confined in metal cages, ‘farrowing crates’, for up to five weeks during each pregnancy cycle and piglets are kept permanently indoors, often on bare concrete or slatted floors. Pigs often suffer from inadequate environmental enrichment, antibiotics overuse, routinely docked tails and routinely clipped teeth.

Red Tractor label

UK Standard (UK pork with no welfare label)

There is very little difference between UK Standard and the legal minimum EU production requirements, except ‘sow stalls’ are banned. Breeding sows are confined to metal cages, ‘farrowing crates’ for up to 5 weeks during each pregnancy cycle and piglets are kept permanently indoors, often on bare concrete or slatted floors. Pigs often suffer from inadequate environmental enrichment & antibiotics overuse. Routine tail docking and teeth clipping is commonplace. Castration is legal, but not commonplace.

EU Standard (EU pork with no welfare label)

Will almost certainly have come from an intensive factory farm. Breeding sows are kept in ‘sow stalls‘ for up to the first four weeks of each pregnancy, then are kept in ‘farrowing crates‘ until the piglets are weaned (a further five weeks). Fattening pigs are normally kept permanently indoors on slatted flors with no bedding. Routine tail docking and routine teeth clipping/grinding has been illegal in the EU since 2003, but remains commonplace. Castration is also commonplace.

High Street Pig Welfare Survey

Three-quarters of the 60 popular supermarkets & high street food chains we surveyed in 2019 were found to be selling pork from factory farms. Many of these don’t even offer a single high welfare alternative. Here’s an inforgraphic showing the full breakdown of results:

How do Supermarkets Compare?

All M&S own-brand fresh pork is a minimum of RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred standard. This gives M&S a high minimum welfare standard throughout their own-brand fresh pork. Within their ‘Speciality’ range they stock some free range and organic pork too.

All of Waitrose’s own-brand fresh pork is comes from UK RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred farms as a minimum standard. This gives Waitrose a high minimum welfare standard throughout their own-brand fresh pork range.

All of Co-op’s own-brand fresh pork is sourced from RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred farms. This gives Co-op a high minimum welfare standard throughout their own-brand fresh pork.

Sainsbury’s own-brand fresh pork products are mostly UK Standard or EU Standard, both of which have a low minimum standard of welfare. However, Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range is RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred, which has a high minimum standard of welfare. So, make sure you seek out the ‘Taste the Difference’ range if buying fresh pork products from Sainsbury’s.

Aldi stocks a lot of EU Standard, UK Standard & Red Tractor own-brand fresh pork, which all have a low minimum welfare standard. Some of Aldi’s ‘Specially Selected’ range of fresh pork is RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred, which has a high minimum welfare standard. So, make sure you seek out the ‘Specially Selected’ range if buying fresh pork products from Aldi – and make sure that product has the RSPCA Assured logo & the words ‘outdoor bred’ on the packaging.

Two thirds of Lidl’s own-brand fresh pork is Red Tractor Assured, which has a low minimum welfare standard. The rest of Lidl’s fresh pork is their ‘Deluxe’ range which is RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred, which has a high minimum welfare standard. So, make sure you seek out the ‘Deluxe’ range if buying fresh pork products from Lidl.

Morrisons own-brand fresh pork products are Red Tractor or EU Standard, both of which have a low minimum welfare standard. Morrisons ‘The Best’ range is no improvement as this is also almost entirely Red Tractor. A very small number of ‘The Best’ cured ham products are RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred, which have a high minimum welfare standard. So, unless you are buying cured ham, it is very difficult to buy high welfare pork in Morrisons.

Tesco stocks Red Tractor, UK Standard and EU Standard own-brand fresh pork products, which all have a low minimum welfare standard. However, all of Tesco’s ‘Finest’ fresh pork range is RSPCA Assured & Outdoor Bred, which has a high minimum welfare standard. So, make sure you seek out the ‘Finest’ range if buying fresh pork products from Tesco.

Most of Iceland’s own-brand fresh pork is EU Standard, which has low minimum standard of welfare. Iceland’s ‘Luxury’ range is Red Tractor Assured, which also has a low minimum standard of welfare. It is therefore not possible to buy high welfare own-brand fresh pork from Iceland.

The vast majority of ASDA’s own-brand fresh pork is either EU Standard or Red Tractor Assured, which both have a low minimum welfare standard. Asda’s ‘Extra Special’ range is also Red Tractor Assured, which has a low minimum standard of welfare. Over half of ASDA’s fresh pork is imported from Europe. If you are very lucky you may occasionally be able to find a very small selection of Outdoor Bred cuts at the meat counter.

Pork Used as an Ingredient in Ready Meals

“Startlingly, only three retailers (M&S, Waitrose and Co-op) include ingredient meat sourced for their own-brand ready meals in their farm animal welfare policies. While retailers are generally keen to promote the provenance and animal welfare standards of their fresh meat, the research found that this didn’t apply to meat used as an ingredient in ready meals. Nearly 30% of meat-based ready meals do not even indicate the country of origin of the meat.”
Source: Eating Better (2018)

Questions to ask retailers

Much of the best meat comes from independent retailers, butchers and farmers’ markets. Meat from these sources is not always labelled and the best way to find out where it came from and how it was produced is to talk to the person you are buying it from.

local-butcher

Here are three key questions to ask when buying pork with no clear high welfare labels:

1. Do you know where this meat came from – ideally the farm where it was raised?
Retailers should ideally know which farm the meat they are selling has come from, or at least which supplier it came from so that you are able to contact the producer.

2. What standards are the pigs raised to?
Organic, Free Range, outdoor bred or RSPCA Assured. Not all farms will have been certified to any of these standards, but may still produce high welfare pork. Retailers should know the conditions in which the pigs have been raised, which you can cross-reference with the labelling information above.

3. How often are antibiotics used, and in what circumstances?
Antibiotics should only be used in essential cases, in other words if the pig is ill and in need of medicine. They should not be used to encourage growth, or simply to keep pigs ‘healthy’.

Download and print our full list of questions to ask retailers

Animated Video

Online Resources

Find farmers’ markets, local butchers and other high welfare retailers by using our high welfare pork directory, as well as these useful websites:

  • pork directory
    High Welfare Pork Directory
    Our very own directory of farms, restaurants, shops & markets helping you find pork that you can trust.
  • find-bigbarn2
    Big Barn
    BigBarn is a Community Interest Company committed to reversing the anti-social trend of the UK food industry.
  • find-localfoodadvisor
    Local Food Advisor
    A list of the top 4000 award winning local producers, Food Markets, Farmers Markets and Farm shops – all of whom have won major UK awards, certifications and recommendations.

  • Proper Snap
    Find your nearest local, independently-produced or artisan food & drink.

Glossary

Sow stalls (sometimes called gestation crates)
These crates were banned completely in the UK in 1999. However, their use is still permitted for up to four weeks post service in the EU. These crates cause severe welfare problems as the sow is unable to turn around and most have no access to bedding; they are unable to take more than two steps forwards or backwards for a whole month.

Farrowing crate
Restrictive pens which prevent the sow from turning around while her piglets are weaning. The confinement and a lack of bedding materials frustrates sows as they’re not able to perform their natural nest-building behaviours. Sows are put into farrowing crates up to a week before they are expected to give birth and for up to a month after giving birth, i.e. confined for up to 5 weeks at a time. These are legal in the UK and under Red Tractor.

Nose ringing
Outdoor sows are often nose ringed in an attempt to prevent excessive rooting of the ground within farrowing arcs. Nose rings work by the action of discomfort and pain as the sow goes to root with her snout, causing her to stop.

Castration
In the EU, it is legal to castrate male piglets without anaesthetic, provided it is done before seven days of age. It is estimated that 80% of male piglets in the EU undergo this painful procedure each year.

Natural behaviours
Pigs have a strong instinct to root. Not having enough manipulatable material, such as straw, frustrates rooting behaviour and can also cause injury and discomfort.

Environmental enrichment
Inadequate stimulation (barren environments) and lack of space can worsen problem behaviours such as tail biting and aggression. Bedding material provides comfort and an opportunity for pigs to root and forage. This also helps to prevent boredom and stress which, in barren enclosures with high stocking densities, can result in outbreaks of fighting.

Tail biting and tail docking
Tail biting, a behavioural problem in pigs, can lead to serious injury and hence welfare problems. However, tail biting is itself a symptom of other welfare problems, indicating some form of physical or mental stress. Tail docking (cutting off piglets’ tails) aims to reduce the likelihood of tail biting when pigs are older, rather than addressing the underlying causes of the behaviour, e.g. boredom, stress, frustration etc. arising from lack of environmental enrichment and overcrowding.

Teeth clipping
Piglets may have their needle teeth clipped or ground down to remove the sharp ends that can cause damage to the sows’ teats and to other piglets.

NB. Both of tail docking and teeth clipping can cause pain as they’re often carried out without anaesthetic.

Straw-based system
Straw allows pigs to root around and express natural behaviours, mitigating the boredom and frustration that leads to tail biting, thus reducing the need for tail docking and teeth clipping.

Slatted system
Due to the system of manure (slurry) removal, does not allow the use of straw or similar manipulable material (illegal).

Intensive systems (factory farms/animal factories/pig factories)
Sows permanently indoors, either confined in crates or crowded pens. Fattening pigs kept permanently indoors in barren, crowded pens with only slatted or concrete floors on which to live.

Intensive systems are indoor-housed with larger herd sizes and stocking densities. The fast growth and overcrowding associated with these systems lead to decreased immunity and increased disease transmission, respectively, and both of these contribute to the metaphylactic administration of antibiotics.

NB. Both indoor and outdoor rearing systems can provide good living conditions, but some farming methods ignore the pigs’ innate behavioural and physical needs. Outdoor pigs have more space, and can explore their environment, forage and hence express their natural behaviours fully.