Understanding meat labels

Next time you dash around your local supermarket aisles or pop in to your high street butcher to collect a joint for Sunday lunch, don’t forget to check the label or ask how the meat was reared.

Understanding meat labels

Photo credit: Abel & Cole

For shoppers, the various claims and logos on product packaging can be tricky to understand. Some standards used in the UK, like the EU’s organic regulations, are rigorous and specific while others like “farm-bred” or “grass-fed” are not as clearly defined.

Our quick guide will help you understand labelling and symbols like Red Tractor, outdoor-reared and organic – and what they mean for your Christmas turkey or New Year’s beef.

EU organic green leaf flag

Organic is the gold standard and guarantees the highest levels of welfare available for animals. It's worth noting that organic is legally defined - no other food or farming standards carry the same level of legal protection or enforcement.

Just look for the little green leaf logo to find food you can trust. The EU regulates organic standards and there are various bodies in the UK, such as the Soil Association or Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G), that inspect farms annually and issue certification for all products that meet the required standards.

On organic farms, animals are truly free range with plenty of space to graze and forage. The standards also mean more space per animal, plus high standards of feed and bedding and no routine use of antibiotics. The land on which they roam is also managed organically, so no herbicides and little or no pesticides will be used on it. For organic poultry, flocks are a slower growing breed, so will have longer lives compared to all non-organic standards.

Free range
In the UK, free range covers a variety of standards. When buying eggs or poultry it is a legal definition but for pork, lamb or beef it is not.

Free range chickens and turkeys have more space in their barn and have day-time access to range outdoors for at least half their life. More space and access to daylight and fresh air means the animals are generally stronger, healthier and slower growing. Free range farmers usually select slower growing breeds which also reduces the risk of heart problems and lameness.

For pork, free range is not a legal definition but generally free range pigs are born outside, have longer with their mother and remain outside for where they are free to roam and forage in a generous space.

Sheep and cattle are usually outside for the summer months at least. You may see the term,

“Pasture Promise” which on beef and dairy means that the cows have grazed outside for at least six months a year, and have been fed on grass or hay in the winter.

Bee illustration

LEAF Marque
If you choose products with a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) marque you are supporting farmers who are committed to farming sustainably and with care for the environment. It’s a global assurance symbol and is additional and complementary to other schemes. Unlike organic standards, it does allow use of herbicides and pesticides (organic standards allow a limited list of 30 carefully selected pesticides are approved for use in organic farming. These are only used as a last resort and with special permission from the organic certifier.)

RSPCA Assured
Previously known as Freedom Foods, this assurance scheme led by the RSPCA aims to improve the welfare of farm animals and guarantees benefits for the animals beyond the industry minimum.

It does not specify outdoor rearing or free range (as the old name might have implied) but does ensure the animals have more space and better bedding.

Wheat illustration

Outdoor Reared and Outdoor Bred
Here in the UK, these terms are usually applied to pork and are easily confused as there is no legal definition for either. ‘Outdoor Bred’ can mean that animals are outside for about half their lives, having being born outside and moved into barns after weaning at four or six weeks, although the sows are outdoors for life.

‘Outdoor Reared’ usually means that that the pigs have continued access to outdoor space after weaning, though there’s no specification about how much space. They are usually moved inside at about 10 weeks.

Red Tractor
You’ll spot the Red Tractor on a huge range of products from meat and dairy to vegetables and cereals. While many people think Red Tractor guarantees UK provenance, in fact this is only the case if the Red Tractor sits on a Union flag. The scheme is run by Assured Food Standards and reflects standard industry practice for basic food safety, hygiene and the environment.

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Christmas can be a busy time but it’s well worth taking a minute to check the labels on the meat you are buying or ask your butcher, who should be more than happy to tell you. Remember cheap meat is cheap for a reason and higher animal welfare results in more flavoursome meat - so, always choose organic if you can. That way, when you sit down to celebrate with family or friends this festive season, you can relax in the knowledge that you’ve supported a way of farming that works with nature, with animals free to forage and graze on land that’s home to more wildlife.

Polly Robinson

Polly Robinson

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