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What’s in a label?

News arrived from Denmark this week that a new labelling scheme is to be launched under the aegis of the Danish Ministry of the Environment & Food. Its purpose is to improve understanding of the key welfare issues in pig production and enable broader and more informed consumer choice in selecting pork products.

Plans are at an advanced stage and a pork labelling scheme will be launched in Denmark in early 2017 and will then be extended to other livestock and meat sectors. The launch is part of a package of pig welfare measures agreed at a 'Welfare Summit' in March 2014, convened by the then Minister of Agriculture, Dan Jørgensen. The signatories included a wide range of industry stakeholders, including producers, retailers and welfare organisations.

The scheme will be based on a three-star system. A single star will represent a welfare category above standard production and will include requirements for free-farrowing sows, no tail-docking and additional space allowances. The two and three-star levels will reflect progressive improvements in welfare standards, with the latter requiring welfare standards equivalent to those applying to organic production. It is expected that the different categories will carry a premium reflecting the higher costs of delivering the required welfare standards. The principles behind the programme will be similar to the Beter Leven (‘Better Life’) scheme in Holland.

Experiences from the UK may provide some useful pointers for the new Danish initiative. Here retailer labels dominate both the pork and other meat categories and ‘higher welfare’ products are usually labelled with the logos of quality schemes such as the RSPCA (formerly Freedom Food) and the Soil Association (Organic), with the Red Tractor logo representing the industry standard.

The industry has also agreed on a number of standard definitions on labels, such as ‘free range’ ‘outdoor bred’ and ‘outdoor bred’.

Although a number of recent research studies both in Denmark and the UK have identified increasing concern expressed by consumers about the welfare of animals used to produce their food, ‘higher welfare’ categories represent significantly less than 10% of the overall pork and bacon retail market, and can hardly be described as mainstream. It is only in the egg category where ‘higher welfare’ products account for a significant market share.

One must be wary of the immutable and often frustrating law of qualitative market research – namely, people don’t always do what they say. When asked a prompted question, many respondents have a tendency to ‘tick the box’ and, as a result, apparent concern about ‘an issue of the day’ is often overstated. Digging deeper, one often finds that, whilst many express concern about animal welfare at a general level, they prefer that their retailer and the supplying farmers attend to the detail and act as their ‘surrogate conscience’ in these matters.
Even though the specifics of welfare may not be ‘front of mind’ for most consumers as they make their meat choices, there is growing pressure from retailers for higher welfare standards in their supply chains.

We wish the Danish initiative well and even before its arrival on the market, Danish producers can point to significant improvements over many years in addressing many aspects of the welfare of the animals in their charge.

Ultimately, the success of the new initiative in raising the welfare bar will depend on how many consumers are prepared to pay the additional costs associated with moving to higher welfare standards.

12th May 2016