We’re a nation of meat lovers. In 2018 we ate the equivalent of 61kg of meat each – 28kg of poultry, 17kg of pork, 12kg of beef and veal, and 4kg of lamb.
But it can be confusing choosing what meat to buy.
Consumers tell us they like to buy British meat, but supermarkets have a variety of labels.
Read on to find out what phrases and labels to look out for when shopping for your meat, and the differences between the accreditation schemes.
Watch our video on welfare standards
We explain how the different standards on a meat farm translate to the products you buy on supermarket shelves.
Animal welfare in the UK
The main accreditation schemes for meat in the UK and that you’ll find in supermarkets are Red Tractor, RSPCA Assured and Soil Association (organic).
The Red Tractor scheme covers food safety and environmental protections, and is only used on British products. Red Tractor accredits indoor and outdoor farming systems.
RSPCA Assured deals solely with animal welfare, and it also accredits indoor and free-range farming systems.
Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured accredited farms include indoor, outdoor bred and reared, and free-range systems.
But the Soil Association (the UK’s largest organic accreditation body) covers outdoor and free-range farming systems only. It also covers traceability, pesticides, use of medication, and GM ingredients.
Most pigs in the UK are reared in indoor-farming systems. These systems vary in terms of the number of animals they contain, the type of flooring they have, and whether bedding is provided.
Bedding: Under the Red Tractor scheme bedding isn’t required for all pigs, however for pigs reared to RSPCA Assured and organic standards, straw or other bedding must be provided.
Farrowing crates: Although sow stalls are banned in the UK, farrowing crates (where a sow births her piglets) are still legally allowed.
Farrowing crates are designed to prevent a sow crushing her piglets but, like sow stalls, they do this by restricting movement. They’re permitted under the Red Tractor scheme but not RSPCA Assured, free-range or organic accredited farms.
Space allowances: These vary between the schemes: Red Tractor aligns with the legal minimum, whereas space allowances for RSPCA Assured and organic are more generous. Free-range and organic pigs are also free to move between their shelters and outdoors.
Weaning: Most piglets are weaned at around 21-28 days, however for free-range and organic it’s later – around 40-56 days. After weaning, piglets are moved to separate accommodation for finishing (reaching their ideal weight to be sold for meat).
Aside from the above accreditation schemes, pork products can also be labelled as outdoor bred, outdoor reared and free-range. While none of these are defined legally, there is industry agreement on what these mean:
- Outdoor bred: Piglets are born outside to free-range sows. They are moved inside after weaning (around 21-28 days) for fattening.
- Outdoor reared: Piglets are born outside to free-range sows and stay outside for around 10 weeks. They are then moved inside for fattening.
- Free-range: Piglets are born and reared outside for all of their lives until they are ready for slaughter. They are free to roam within their spacious defined area.
Only around 2-3% of pigs spend their entire lives outdoors.
If you want to buy higher-welfare pork, look for products labelled as outdoor bred, outdoor reared, free-range and organic.
Grass-fed beef and lamb
Most beef cattle and sheep in the UK spend at least part of the year outside grazing on pasture, regardless of the accreditation scheme.
Although some meat is labelled as grass-fed, this doesn’t mean the animal has been solely fed on pasture, only that at least 51% of their diet is pasture. Grain and cereal are often used to supplement diets, especially to increase weight gain just before slaughter.
Only meat carrying the Pasture for Life logo has been 100% grass fed. Even when animals are moved inside (for lack of pasture and bad weather in winter), they are fed silage from pasture and forage.
Indoor housing conditions vary between the different accreditation schemes, with only certain classes of cattle receiving bedding under the Red Tractor scheme.
RSPCA Assured cattle are all given bedding, and slatted floors are not allowed. The Soil Association requires at least half of the housing area to be a dry resting area with bedding.
Space allowances also vary, and increase as you move from Red Tractor to RSPCA Assured to Soil Association (organic), as shown in the video above.
The UK has some of the highest animal welfare and farming standards in the world, and we want these to be maintained in the future.
Make your voice heard: sign our petition to save food standards now