Food for thought

THE word 'organic' or 'freedom' on a box of eggs, conjures up images of hens clucking round a field, happy and healthy, warming themselves in the afternoon sun.

By Tracey Sparling

THE word 'organic' or 'freedom' on a box of eggs, conjures up images of hens clucking round a field, happy and healthy, warming themselves in the afternoon sun.

But is that really true in today's competitive food market?

Features editor TRACEY SPARLING asks can you trust the labels which promise animal welfare, or do you need to take them with a pinch of salt?

AS SAVVY shoppers, we want to know that the tasty chicken drumstick we savour, led a happy and contented life running around a farm - and not be left with an aftertaste of guilt.

We want to know our food is not soaked in pesticides which might cause us health problems, yet we don't want to pay much extra.

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Today we know it is possible to make a difference just by picking up a different box of eggs from the shop shelf, or changing the brand of cotton t-shirt we buy, and many of us are willing to pay more to ensure animal welfare.

But when you stand there in the supermarket, faced with a barrage of claims on the labels - all slightly different, how do you know which one to choose?

A recent study by professors at Cardiff University found that confusion reigns, because food labels across Europe are based on competing definitions of animal welfare.

Food labels can have an explicit welfare content, such as 'Freedom foods'; imply a welfare standard such as the various organic certification schemes; or claim a more ambiguous welfare background, such as the various quality labels. The researchers found that all these labels can reflect very different approaches to welfare. To complicate matters further, not all high quality animal-welfare foods are labelled as such. For example few products from Norway are labelled as being welfare-friendly, because Norwegian consumers already assume that blanket state regulations will ensure a high level of welfare across all animal food products. Similarly, in the UK certain supermarkets state animal welfare claims within their own retailing brand, rather than labelling products with the usual symbols which mean they have been produced with the animal's welfare in mind.

So what should you look out for when you next go shopping?

Weblinks:

www.eatwell.gov.uk

www.redtractor.org.uk

www.theranger.co.uk

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Are you happy to pay the difference for better food? Do you buy food with animal welfare in mind? Write to Star Letters, the Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or email eveningstarletters.co.uk.

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To find out more, visit the Natural Products Europe and Organic Products Europe, at the Grand Hall, Olympia, London on April 9 and 10.

1. ORGANIC:

What to look for

The Soil Association's symbol is the main certification mark, appearing on 70pc of organic food produced in the UK. Other symbols include the organic Food Federation, and the Organic Farmers and Growers Ltd.

Where to find it: On food and drink, aclothing, cosmetics, health products, timber products and compost. Organic certification also applies to restaurants, bars and holiday accommodation, as well as shops.

What it means:

The Soil Association annually inspects all licensed organic farms, food companies and retailers - and does spot checks if any cause for concern is suggested. Its mark ensures no more than 500 chickens per flock, and only 0.1pc GM contamination, and 97pc of its certified producers are British resulting in less transport and pollution.

Organic farms work with natural systems to encourage the biological cycles of the soil, plants and animals. They protect the landscape and wildlife, pay careful attention to animal welfare, and avoid pollution.

They use crop rotations to make the soil more fertile. For example, a farmer might graze sheep on a field one year, making the soil more fertile, then plant wheat the next and so on.

Animals are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers common in intensive livestock farming.

They are kept in free-range conditions with a more natural diet, and the Association prohibits live exports of animals from organic farms, ensuring that only carcasses or meat is transported.

Organic food doesn't contain food additives which can cause health problems such as heart disease, osteoporosis, migraines and hyperactivity.

But:

A report published by the Soil Association and Sustain, found that there is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than other food.

Professor Sir John Krebs, chair of the UK Food Standards Agency in 2000, said: “Consumers are not getting value for money if they think they are buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety.”

Organic farms can use seven of the 100s of pesticides available to farmers.

Manufacturers are allowed to use specific non-organic ingredients provided that organic ingredients make up at least 95pc of the food, because not all ingredients are available in organic form.

If the product contains between 70pc and 95pc organic ingredients, organic ingredients can be mentioned only in the ingredients list, and a clear statement must be given on the front of the label showing the total percentage of the ingredients that are organic.

It costs more to produce, because high welfare standards have to be maintained.

Some organic marks allow 0.9 per cent genetically modified ingredients.

90 per cent of organic food is imported, so transporting it puts more carbon dioxide in the air.

Much of the organic produce in supermarkets is still heavily packaged, causing an environmental problem to dispose of the waste.

A report by animal rights group Viva last year, called 'The Dark Side of the Dairy' found that cows on organic farms are still impregnated every year to provide milk, and have their calves taken away within 72 hours of birth. Male calves are shot shortly after birth.

Less than two per cent of the UK's annual milk production is organic.

A report by animal welfare group Peta said: “Organic meat, milk and eggs are produced by routinely feeding the animals food that contains no pesticides or antibiotics. Because the animals are often untreated even when sick, and because these farms are often quite small and may keep sick and ailing animals around longer, cruelty on such farms can conceivably be worse than on the huge factory farms.”

It is estimated that we will spend £1.6billion a year on organic food and drink by 2007.

2. RED TRACTOR:

What to look for:

The logo now features the words 'Assured Food Standards', replacing the words British Farm Standard since last year. A union flag has also been introduced to tell consumers that the food has been produced, processed and packed in the UK.

Where to find it: On farm-produced food.

What it means:

The food has been produced on a farm that is registered as a member of a food assurance scheme. It is an umbrella term for a variety of schemes.

These voluntary schemes set out certain production standards, in areas such as animal welfare but also food safety and hygiene, and environmental protection. They include regular checks by independent assessors to ensure quality.

The little red tractor was launched in 2000 to help restore pubic confidence in the farming industry after a series of food scares.

There are currently over 78,000 Red Tractor farmers in the UK, and 350 Red Tractor processors and packers.

BUT:

The 'Dark Side of the Dairy' said the Little Red Tractor logo only applied to farms meeting the UK and EU legal minimum. The Sustainable Development Commission has also called the symbol a 'baseline standard'. An investigation by Compassion in World farming claimed that the logo offers 'few assurances that animals are treated any better than the bare minimum legal guidelines…the scheme is more concerned with creating the image of welfare rather than the reality.'

It can be applied to products from intensive farming, eg: 19 hens can be kept per square metre.

3. FREEDOM FOODS

What to look for:

Where to find it: On meat, eggs and dairy products.

What it means:

This the RSPCA's scheme to improve welfare standards for the 900 million farm animals reared for food each year in the UK. Food producers volunteer to sign up, and are assessed to join, and re-checked by the RSPCA. Products come from animals reared, transported and slaughtered in accordance with the RSPCA's welfare standards based on their 'five freedoms'. They are: freedom from fear and distress, pain, injury and disease, hunger and thirst, discomfort, and the freedom to express normal behaviour.

72 per cent of hen eggs sold in the UK are produced by hens kept in a ventilated cage, and about five per cent use the barn system (using perches or hen houses) - to get the RSPCA Freedom Food mark.

BUT

The logo does not mean the food is free range. The RSPCA will accredit indoor systems of rearing animals, providing the animal has plenty of room to move around, and good access to food and water.

The Dark Side of the Dairy' found that Freedom Foods standards provide little more than the legal minimum for dairy cows and their calves. It said: “The welfare benefit provided to dairy cows by the RSPCA Freedom Foods scheme was evaluated in a study by Bristol University which investigated the welfare of cows on 40 Freedom Foods farms and 40 non-Freedom Foods farms. It found there was no difference in overall welfare score between Freedom Foods and non-Freedom Foods farms.”

4. BRITISH MEAT QUALITY

What to look for:

Where to find it: On meat

What it means:

The Meat and Livestock Commission, which is funded by the meat industry, sets animal welfare standards in addition to the legal requirements. Spokesman John Bullock said under its umbrella the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) sets quality standard marks for beef and lamb. Their Quality Standard Mark is a new scheme that is the only scheme in the UK to cover eating quality. All beef and lamb carrying the Mark is chosen according to a strict selection process to ensure it is succulent and tender. The Mark also tells you where your beef and lamb is from. For example meat from an animal born, raised and slaughtered in England will carry the Quality Standard beef or Quality Standard lamb Mark indicating English origin with the St George's flag.

The British Pig Executive (BPEX) has the Quality Standard Mark for pork, which highlights bacon and ham products made to the high welfare standards, production methods and quality control procedures. The scheme is independently audited and embraces farm assurance, transportation and slaughter and processing.

But:

Animals can be reared by intensive farming methods, and don't even have to come from British farms, as long as they meet British standards.

5. LION QUALITY STAMP

What to look for:

Where to find it: On 75pc of eggs in the UK

What it means: This scheme is run by the British Egg Industry Council, to show eggs produced by UK hens that are vaccinated against salmonella. Lion-marked eggs are traceable and carry a best before date stamped on the shell. To comply with the code, producers have to adhere to hygiene and welfare standards beyond the legal requirements.

But:

It is not a government scheme, contrary to what many people believe.

Eggs can come from a battery farm.

6. DOLPHIN-FRIENDLY

What to look for:

Where to find it: Tinned fish

What it means:

Tuna often swim with schools of dolphins, and some tuna fishing methods catch the dolphins at the same time, killing or injuring them. An estimated 7,000,000 dolphins - at least - have been killed in the last 30 years by the international tuna industry in the Eastern Tropical Pacific alone, with millions more killed by driftnets.

In 1990, the program to label tuna cans "Dolphin Safe" (certifying that no dolphins were encircled to catch tuna) began in the USA, reducing dolphin deaths in tuna nets by 97 per cent.

According to the Marine Conservation Society, canned tuna from Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury's is caught "in a manner which minimises risk to marine mammals".

Marks & Spencer and Somerfield label their canned tuna as dolphin-friendly; all the above claim to buy from fisheries monitored by the Earth Island Institute based in California.

If you see "Maldives" embossed on the can (not the label), the tuna will have been sustainably caught by pole and line, so it's a good choice.

But:

Claims that tuna is 'dolphin safe' or 'dolphin friendly' indicate that harmful fishing methods weren't used. Yet when the charity Dolphin Care UK asked major manufacturers about the 'dolphin safe' logo it got mostly vague responses. It said: “One assured us that all incoming shipments to its canneries must be accompanied by a 'dolphin safe' certificate signed by the seller and also a signed captain's statement certifying that the fish is 'dolphin safe'. But what credibility do these documents have when there's little independent inspection?”

7. FREE RANGE:

What to look for: The words 'free range' rather than a symbol.

Where to find it: Meat and eggs.

What it means: Hens live in a hen house but also have continuous daytime access to runs. Regulations insist that each farm must provide at least an acre of field for every 400 chickens.

BUT: All it means is farmers have to provide birds with access to an outdoor run.

A report by animal welfare group Peta says animals are often crammed inside faeces-ridden sheds, with no ability to engage in any natural behaviour. It added: “'Free-range' birds also generally spend the majority (if not all) of their lives inside a dark shed with thousands of other birds. These sheds have 'popholes' which allow birds access to the outside and the producers to label their eggs 'free-range'. However, because birds are territorial, the stronger ones monopolise the area around the popholes, while the weaker ones may never cross these territories to get to the exits. Fights break out amongst the congregated birds. Because aggression, injuries and even cannibalism are rife under these stressful conditions, free-range hens may still be debeaked, a painful practice in which the ends of the birds' beaks are sliced off. Egg-laying birds must be female. But 50 per cent of the chicks hatched for the egg industry are male, and these financially worthless male birds are slaughtered soon after birth.”

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