Food labelling is a hot topic in Australia. As consumers we are bombarded with images of cows freely grazing on grass, chickens foraging in the great outdoors and pigs happily playing in the mud. These are the images marketers want us to see and relate to the products they are representing. In contrast to these images which appeal to our emotions and make us “feel” good about buying them for our family, the reality can be quite the opposite. So how are we, as time poor consumers, really expected to understand the food labelling process here in Australia and be discerning consumers? Let’s break down some of the popular and often misleading terms used by the food industry, so we can begin to understand the difference between organic, grass-fed, outdoor bred and free range.
The term organic strictly refers to produce such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products, that are grown and farmed without the use of synthetic chemicals like pesticides or artificial fertilisers, free of genetically modified components and without exposure to ionising radiation. In relation to the production of meat and poultry and their by-products such as eggs and dairy, the welfare of the animal is paramount and as such, they aren’t fed growth-regulating drugs, steroids, hormones or antibiotics. Organic farming practices also aim to provide a more natural environment for the animals which facilitates natural behaviours such as foraging. Organic farming usually includes access to the outdoors but exact standards can vary from farm to farm unless certification has been achieved. Sounds ideal right?
One thing to keep in mind when considering organic products is that the term “organic” refers to the farming process and as such, the nutritional profile of the product should be of higher quality due to the reduction in chemical load. However, the downside of truly organic agriculture is that certification is a very expensive process and although it can result in better conditions, it doesn’t always guarantee a higher standard of animal welfare. Another important point to consider when purchasing organic produce is that the farm supplying the produce may be organic, but what about the farm next door that is not organic? Run-off from this farm can contaminate the organic farm and bees that pollinate do not discriminate between organic and non-organic farms!
There’s no legal definition of free range when it comes to meat in Australia. Free range refers to animals that have some access to the outdoors. How much access, how often, and how big the outdoor area is, can vary greatly. When it comes to free range chickens in Australia, they are housed in sheds at night to keep them safe from predators and the elements. Chickens are generally not allowed to roam the outdoors during the day until they are fully feathered which occurs around 21 days old. During the day most free range farms offer chickens access to large grassed range areas where they are able to forage and exhibit their natural behavioural traits.
In Australia, traditionally, beef and lamb range on pastures, allowing for a more ‘natural’ existence. However, some farms will still rear their animals free range until the final stage of production, where they will then be held in feedlots to increase their growth rate prior to slaughter. A true definition of free range would exclude products from animals that had been held in feedlots, no matter how long. Pig farming too, has been moving away from the intensive farming model to allowing free ranging outdoors where they can exhibit their natural behaviours such as foraging for food, building nests, wallowing in mud to keep cool and interacting with their siblings and peers.
Still, with no industry standard, the free range label is difficult to be sure of. It is left up to consumers to be educated and discerning when it comes to purchasing free range produce.
A truly grass fed animal is one that is free to roam pastures for the entirety of their lives. They would never be confined to feedlots or sheds and would not be supplemented grains as feed. If it is important for you as a consumer to buy 100% grass fed that’s never been grain fed, you need to look for the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) certification. The PCAS is assurance that the beef comes from cows that ate only grass and that no growth hormones or prophylactic antibiotics were used in raising the animals. 100% grass fed cattle have a higher concentration of Omega 3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid – compounds that are not overly abundant in our modern diet. Finishing cattle on grains prior to slaughter, undoes this string of nutrients and drastically reduces the health benefits for the consumer.
Outdoor bred often refers to breeding pigs that live and breed their piglets in an outdoor environment. They are free to roam, forage, wallow and feed in an ideal cool temperate climate suitable for raising pigs in the open. Once the piglets are weaned they are moved to straw based huts commonly known as “Eco Shelters”, where they live with other piglets until sale or slaughter.
Over to you, the consumer….
The take home message when choosing to purchase meat or poultry, is that consumers should be looking for the highest welfare product they can afford. Higher welfare farming takes into account the environment in which animals are raised, the absence of growth regulating hormones and prophylactic hormones and agricultural practices that are sustainable. Follow these tips for ethical options:
- Seek out butchers that specialise in providing higher welfare meats where the provenance is known and verified
- Avoid purchasing meat and poultry from supermarkets
- Avoid factory farmed chicken and pork products
- Avoid animals finished in feedlots
- Choose certified organic, PROOF (Pasture Raised on Open Fields) or Humane Choice (True Free Range) accredited labels
- Choose quality over quantity
- Eat secondary or less popular cuts to make use of the whole animal and reduce waste
We’d love to hear your comments on food labelling and how you choose to feed your family!