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Home & garden.

6 August 2021

Decoding food labels: sustainability, welfare and food safety

The sustainability, welfare and food safety certification schemes you might see on food packaging and what they mean
Olivia Howes
Woman reading labelling on a carton

Our A to Z guide to the sustainability, animal welfare and food certification schemes you might find on food packaging.

Scroll down to see an A to Z of common packaging labels, or click view all above to see what's covered in the guide and navigate to a particular label.

It should be noted that some of these schemes have come under criticism in the past for lack of transparency, conflicts of interests, or breaching their own rules. While it’s important to acknowledge this, here we aim to set out what’s out there, rather than comment on the individual merits of, or issues with, each one.

To find out more about recycling food packaging, read our guide on how to recycle in the UK.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)

ASC logo

Where you’ll see it: on 17 species of farmed fish including salmon, shrimp, trout and bivalves (e.g. scallops).

What is it? The ASC was set up to minimise the main impacts of farmed fishing and to promote fish that have been farmed responsibly and sustainably. There are plans to adopt a single ASC Farm Standard across all species as well as to incorporate fish welfare into the standard.

B Corp

B Corp Logo

Where you’ll see it: on company websites rather than individual items. 

What is it? Any company, from fund management to furniture, can become B Corporation Certified. Waitrose and Ocado have both recently added virtual B Corp ‘aisles’ to their websites, so that you can choose from companies that have been certified. A B Impact Assessment is done on a company’s impact on its workers, customers, community and environment, as well as requiring a company’s board of directors to balance profit and purpose. B Corp certified brands include Alpro, Ben & Jerry’s, Ella’s Kitchen and Method.

Cocoa Life

Cocoa Life Logo

Where you’ll see it: Cadbury’s, Daim, Milka, Green & Black’s

What is it? Founded in 2012, Mondelez’s in-house sustainability scheme trains farmers to increase yields and income, and adopt good farming practices to protect forests. It also aims to empower workers and combat child labour. Fairtrade sits on the board of Cocoa Life. It doesn’t offer minimum pricing to producers, but has pledged that producers will not be worse off than they would be under Fairtrade.

Cocoa Plan

Cocoa Plan Logo

Where you’ll see it: KitKat, Milkybar, Nesquik

What is it? Nestle’s sustainability scheme aims to make cocoa farming more profitable for farmers by providing them with better yielding cocoa trees and training them to use land sustainably. It also works to eliminate child labour, empower women and improve transparency in the supply chain. Farmers aren’t offered minimum pricing. KitKats used to carry Fairtrade certification, but this was replaced by Cocoa Plan in 2020.

EU Organic Leaf Logo

Where you’ll see it: across all food categories, including meat and dairy.

What is it? As part of the Brexit deal it was agreed that the EU organic logo can be continued to be used on organic food or feed until 31 Dedember 2023. The use of this logo is optional on UK foods, and may be found in addition to other organic certification scheme logos such as Soil Association or OF&G. For a food to be labelled as organic, it must be certified by one of the organic certification bodies or it is in breach of the law. This is not necessarily the case in countries outside of the UK and EU. For a pre-packed food to be labelled organic, at least 95% of the ingredients of agricultural origin must be organic. Like all food certified as organic, products must meet strict criteria around the use of pesticides, fertilisers, drugs and animal welfare. 

Fairly Traded

Sainsbury's Fairly Traded

Where you’ll see it: Sainsbury’s own-label teabags and loose tea

What is it? Sainsbury’s parted with Fairtrade tea to launch its own Fairly Traded label in 2017. Farmers are paid a minimum price for their tea and an additional fund which is ring-fenced and managed by the Sainsbury’s Foundation. It works with farmers to create action plans for how to use the fund, for example in education or health. The scheme is still in its pilot phase. 

Fairtrade

Fairtrade logo

Where you’ll see it: bananas and other fruit, chocolate, tea and coffee, fruit juice and flowers.

What is it? Fairtrade covers environmental, economic and social standards. It’s the only scheme that currently sets minimum market prices for what farmers and producers are selling, to cover the cost of sustainable production, plus it gives them an additional premium to invest in community projects. To get certified, farms also need to have fair working conditions, ban forced and child labour, and meet environmental criteria – responsible waste management and water use, and minimal use of pesticides.

Free range

Where you’ll see it: chicken, eggs, pork products, turkey

What is it? In the UK, the words ‘free range’ on packaging cover a variety of standards and there’s no official free range logo. For poultry, there is a legal definition of what 'free range' must mean, but for other livestock, there isn’t. For example, chickens must have access to the outdoors for a minimum of half their lives to be labelled free-range. Free-range pigs are expected to have permanent access to pasture throughout their lives, but this is set by a voluntary industry code. It would be unusual to find beef or lamb labelled as free range on the packaging, as most UK cows and sheep have access to pasture. You may see beef and lamb labelled with pasture-fed, however.  

Friend of the Sea

Friend of the Sea

Where you’ll see it: farmed and wild fish and shellfish, fish oil supplements

What is it? For fisheries there are rules about overfishing, caps on the number of fish that are discarded back into the ocean and restriction on bycatch. Friend of the Sea certifies nearly a quarter of the world’s global catch on tuna. For fish farms, standards include minimising impact on the surrounding habitat, and banning the use of growth hormones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and child labour.

LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Marque

Lear Marque Logo

Where you’ll see it: fruit and veg, grains, plants, flowers, dairy products and meat

What is it? This scheme aims to deliver sustainable food and farming. Products carrying the logo operate to sustainable farming standards, for example by managing soil quality, using water and energy efficiently and controlling pollution. Standards are reviewed at least every five years to remain relevant.

Lionmark

Lion Mark Logo

Where you’ll see it: eggs

What is it? Primarily a food safety standard that applies to all types of hen systems – caged, barn, free-range and organic. Lion Mark eggs come from hens that have been vaccinated against Salmonella and are guaranteed British. Eggs will also be stamped with a code which denotes the system the hen is kept in ( = Organic, 1 = Free Range, 2 = Barn, 3 = Cage) as well as a code that locates the farm where the egg was produced.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

MSC logo

Where you’ll see it: on fish and shellfish caught in the sea

What is it? It indicates that the fishery is part of a pledge to prevent overfishing and ensure enough fish are left in the sea. The fishery needs to prove that it doesn’t affect other species or ocean habitats and, since August 2019, fisheries also need to show they comply with workers’ rights. All fish carrying the MSC logo are traceable. Certification status can change depending on fish stocks. The scheme doesn’t cover animal welfare.

Organic Famers & Growers (OF&G)

Organic Farmers and Growers Logo

Where you’ll see it: across all food categories including meat and dairy

What is it? The second-largest organic certification body in the UK, after Soil Association, OF&G certifies over 50% of organic land. For a food to be labelled as organic, it must be certified by one of the organic certification bodies or it is in breach of the law. Like all organic certification bodies, OF&G-certified products must meet strict criteria around the use of pesticides, fertilisers, drugs and animal welfare. Livestock will have access to the outdoors for a significant portion of their lives. 

Outdoor bred

Where you’ll see it: pork products

What is it? Tells you that pigs are born in systems with outdoor space, then brought indoors for fattening after weaning, while the mother pig continues to live outdoors. No offiicial logo.

Outdoor reared

Where you’ll see it: pork products

What is it? Tells you that pigs are born in systems with outdoor space and spend around half their life outdoors. No official logo.

Pasture for Life

Pasture for life logo

Where you’ll see it:  beef, dairy products, lamb (generally found in butchers and farm shops)

What is it? A certification scheme that ensures that the meat or dairy you buy is 100% pasture-fed (grass and forage crops) and has had no grain or commercially produced feed. This usually means the animal will be higher welfare, although meat or dairy labelled with the Pasture for Life logo may also have other welfare labels, such as RSPCA Assured. 

Pasture Promise

Pasture Promise logo

Where you’ll see it:  milk in Asda, Midcounties Co-ops, smaller independents

What is it? Set up by the Free Range Dairy Farmers Network, it guarantees that milk carrying its logo comes from cows which have been free-ranging and grazing on pasture for a minimum of 180 days a year. While the majority of cows in the UK do have access to pasture for some of the year, zero-grazing systems do exist (farm animal welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming estimates that around 20% of dairy cows in the UK are kept permanently indoors) so schemes like Pasture Promise ensure free-range access.

Quality Standard

Quality standard mark logo

Where you’ll see it: beef and lamb 

What is it? Covers eating quality for beef and lamb – shows the meat has been selected to be succulent and tender. It guarantees standards of food safety, animal welfare and care for the environment equivalent to those offered by Red Tractor.

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance logo

Where you’ll see it: coffee and tea, chocolate, bananas and other fruit, smoothies and nuts

What is it? Like Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance scheme covers social, economic and environmental issues. Products that carry this logo must prove they have systems in place to protect the farm’s natural biodiversity and resources. These include restricting the use of certain pesticides, not contributing to deforestation, minimising soil erosion and monitoring how much energy and water they use. Additionally, they must treat workers fairly, not allow child labour and be part of the Global Living Wage Coalition, but unlike Fairtrade, it doesn’t require a minimum price or pay a premium to producers, though there are additional cash payments made to producers for certified crops. UTZ merged with the Rainforest Alliance in 2018 and so the Rainforest Alliance seal replaces the UTZ label, though you may still find some UTZ-branded products, particularly in Europe.

Red Tractor

Red Tractor Logo

Where you’ll see it: across all food categories, including fresh produce, meat and dairy

What is it? A Red Tractor logo means the food you’re buying is British and traceable back to its origin (vital for food safety, as issues can be pinpointed and resolved at source). The standards Red Tractor sets are enforced through monitoring and inspections by an independent body. While some of its welfare standards don’t go beyond legal minimums, Red Tractor has recently launched an enhanced welfare standard for indoor chickens and a free -range label. An organic label is also planned. Similar schemes for other livestock are expected to follow.

Round Table Responsible Soy (RTRS)

RTRS Responsible Soy Logo

Where you’ll see it: Quorn Foods (includes Cauldron brand)

What is it? Soya (soy) beans are the largest available global source of protein but the vast majority of the world’s soya crops go to feeding animals. Production in Brazil has quadrupled in the past 20 years, causing destruction of forests and natural habitats, as land is cleared to make way for soy fields. The RTRS promotes good agricultural practices that respect the local environment and fair labour conditions.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Certified Palm Oil

RSPO logo

Where you’ll see it: food and toiletries across all categories, but palm oil is common in things like biscuits, bread and spreads

What is it? Palm oil is one of the most efficient vegetable oil crops – palm yields four times more oil than others. Its versatility makes it very popular; it’s in around half of all supermarket products. But its popularity has led to huge deforestation. This scheme accredits palm oil that’s been produced sustainably and without causing harm to people or the environment. Some packaging may not use the logo, but will still state RSPO palm oil as an ingredient. While the RSPO has been the subject of criticism in recent years, it is supported by the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) whose members include Greenpeace and WWF, as well as manufacturers Danone, Ferrero and L’Oreal, who still see the RSPO as the key route to continuing improvement.

RSPCA Assured

RSPCA Assured

Where you’ll see it: eggs, dairy, farmed fish and meat

What is it? A welfare certification scheme that ensures that the farms, hauliers and abattoirs used in the production of your food have been assessed to RSPCA’s farm animal welfare standards. This includes the animals having more indoor space, environmental enrichment, as well as limiting transport time and slaughter methods.   It does not guarantee that the animal was free range, as the RSPCA certifies indoor as well as free-range and organic systems. For this, also look for free range on the packaging.

Soil Association Organic

Soil Association logo

Where you’ll see it: across all food categories including meat and dairy

What is it? All food sold as organic in the UK and EU must come from producers registered with an approved certification body and is subject to statutory control. The biggest is the Soil Association, which certifies more than 70% of organic products. For livestock or animal-derived ingredients, strict criteria include reduced use of drugs, no GM feed and generous allowances for space and guarantees the animal will live free-range for a significant portion of its life. For crops the use of pesticides is strictly limited and artificial fertiliser can’t be used.

UTZ

UTZ logo

Where you’ll see it: coffee and tea, chocolate, bananas and other fruit, smoothies and nuts

What is it? In 2018 UTZ merged with the Rainforest Alliance so products still carrying the UTZ logo are likely to be transitioning over to the Rainforest Alliance logo in the coming months. You may find more products with the UTZ logo in Europe. UTZ is a sustainable farming program and covers social, economic and environmental issues. It doesn't require farmers to be paid a minimum market price.

Vegetarian Society Approved

Vegetarian Society logo

Where you'll see it: across a wide variety of foods and meat alternatives

What is it? Vegetarian foods may just say 'suitable for vegetarians' or supermarkets may use other logo schemes or their own logos, but a Vegetarian Society logo ensures that there are no ingredients in the product resulting from slaughter, only free-range eggs are used, products are GMO-free and no animal testing has been carried out. The scheme is independently certified. In 2017 the Vegetarian Society launched a Vegan Approved logo which ensures the product is also free from any animal-derived ingredients.

Vegan

Vegan society logo

Where you’ll see it: a wide range of foods and meat alternatives

What is it? There are a number of vegan logos aside from the Vegan Society’s (pictured). Different certification bodies may all have slightly different criteria, but in essence, they examine products to ensure they are free from animal ingredients and testing. The Vegan Society’s strict criteria defines ‘animals’ to include all invertebrates, meaning its animal testing policy does not exclude insects, water fleas, or any other creatures. Using a vegan logo for a vegan product is entirely voluntary. Some products may state they are ‘vegan-friendly’ or ‘suitable for vegans’. While the law says that consumers shouldn’t be deliberately misled by the use of such terms, the lack of official guidance can lead to minor inconsistencies.

Wholesome Food Association

Wholesome Food Association logo

Where you’ll see it: small scale food producers

What is it? A small, low-cost symbol that asks local producers to abide by food production standards that are focused around sustainable, non-polluting methods. Because they are small scale, inspections are not carried out routinely, but producers using the symbol are expected to abide by an open-gate policy and welcome retailers, distributors and customers on open days.