High-welfare pork – food labelling hits the headlines again

The increasingly complex and contrary world of food advertising and labelling is once again in the headlines.

Compassion in World Farming had complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about an AHDB advert that read “Pork not porkies. Red Tractor pork is high-welfare pork”.

The implication of the advert was that UK pork is produced to a higher welfare standard than many of our European counterparts. But CIWF stated that the advert’s claim of high welfare was “overblown and misleading”. The ASA upheld the complaint and has banned the advert.

I have respect for much of the work that CIWF undertakes. But when its director Joyce D’Silva described the ASA ruling as “a victory for consumers who deserve to be able to choose higher welfare meat without being misled”, I thought of pots calling kettles black, recalling CIWF’s campaign against large-scale dairying.

In that instance, CIWF campaigned that large-scale dairying would be detrimental to cow welfare. I believe it misled consumers by insinuating that large dairy farms and poor welfare were inextricably linked.

With regards to the pork advert, Ms D’Silva commented that it was “a particularly embarrassing own-goal for Red Tractor pork”. I entirely disagree. I believe that CIWF has scored the own goal in thinking it has claimed a victory for UK consumers. Quite the reverse.

Supermarket shelves are overcrowded with a kaleidoscope of different food labels and food accreditation logos. There are more than 80 in the UK. All research arrives at the same conclusion: most shoppers are confused. Not, as would be expected, by the detail of the different standards, but by the basics.

The majority would be unable to explain how a Freedom Food chicken differs from a Tesco Finest chicken, or an organic sausage from a local banger, or a Soil Association spud from a Leaf Marque potato. And many assume that the Red Tractor just means British.

CIWF’s sleight on a single advertising campaign of a respected assurance standard is in danger of undermining all UK farm produce. History has shown us that because the UK consumer is overwhelmed with all these standards, if spooked by a media story they will not differentiate. Instead they are more likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So, while CIWF has been busy making sure everyone knows about its “victory”, the already confused shopper who reads the furore over the Red Tractor pork advert makes a conscious decision to choose pork from a non-UK source, which will probably be produced to a lower welfare standard. Not a victory for consumers, the CIWF scores an own-goal and the misled shopper loses.

The secret of many effective NGOs is a vibrant PR department. But these departments are often guilty of an over-exuberance, making the most of every story regardless of the fallout. Maximising a story’s exposure to benefit the NGOs profile and encourage financial contributions from sympathisers takes no account of the unintended consequence.

Yes, there may be gold standards of welfare that are deemed higher than those required for Red Tractor pork. But is it not more important that UK shoppers are aware that other parts of the world allow standards of welfare that are unacceptable in the UK?

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the Founder of Open Farm Sunday.

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