The Canberra Times ran an article today claiming that the RSPCA logo is misleading pork buyers.
The article quotes Humane Choice’s Lee McCosker, who says customers assume that products with the RSPCA Paw of Approval are free range, “even though the products could be from pigs raised in terrible conditions”.
It sounds like a fair enough claim, but is the RSPCA Paw of Approval any more misleading than other food labels?
What is the Paw of Approval?
RSPCA has a commercial arrangement with companies including Coles and Primo Fresh Pork, The Canberra Times reports.
Farms and companies that adhere to its standards (ranging from animals per metre squared to sowing conditions) can slap an RSPCA approved sticker on their products, and RSPCA reportedly receives two percent of those sales.
While the RSPCA asserts that the money goes back into accrediting farms, McCosker told The Canberra Times, “this is animal welfare for sale”.
It’s easy to be sceptical. Companies like Coles have a lot of weight to throw around.
Given how much food industry lobby groups in the United States can twist the arms of Government there (have you heard of Round Two of “ketchup is a vegetable”?), it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that big companies could wrangle an underfunded organisation such as the RSPCA into accrediting less than ideal farms.
Despite this, there’s very little discussion online about the Paw of Approval system. Even PETA, who is usually very vocal about animal welfare issues, doesn’t appear to have any criticisms of the scheme.
*If you are from PETA, or a keen animal activist, let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Why could it be considered misleading?
It seems like McCosker’s main gripe is that people who buy RSPCA approved pork might believe that it is free range, when in fact, pigs who spend most of their lives inside, or in squalid conditions, can also earn the Paw of Approval.
RSPCA approved pork does not have to be free range. It does have to meet criteria concerning how much space a pig has, and no sow crates are allowed (this is a very good thing. Watch this 60 Minutes video on pork farming to find out why).
The bad: The space allocated to RSPCA approved pigs is far from generous. Two 45 kg pigs share a space just larger than one metre squared. A 120 kg pig is given just 1.16 metres squared. Some pigs rarely see sunlight.
The good: RSPCA doesn’t endorse the use of sow stalls, and takes steps to ensure that mamma pigs can spend time with their infants. It has also made it clear exactly what standards products must meet to qualify for its approval.
In some cases, this is better than products labelled as free range, which don’t necessarily have to meet criteria to earn the title (there have been cases of eggs being labelled as “free range” even though the chickens could only access a tiny, dusty courtyard which was shut for most of the day).
Because of this, free range pork products could also “be from pigs raised in terrible conditions”.
Paul Pattison, managing director of Australia’s largest pork producer Rivalea told ABC News that Australia desperately needs a new labelling system for free range pork.
“So we’re desperately requiring proper and true labelling of what is free range, definite and absolute requirements of what free range constitutes, and we need … a definition which is able to be reliably, sustainably managed,” he said.
What about free range eggs?
The Canberra Times article doesn’t mention RSPCA’s criteria for approving free-range eggs, but it’s worth looking in to.
The good: Free range doesn’t mean that the chicken that laid the eggs in your omelette had a blissful life in a lush field.
To gain RSPCA approval, free-range hens need a minimum of eight hours access to “palatable vegetation” each day. That’s something.
The bad: RSPCA condones beak trimming (which is a painful practice used to prevent cannibalism in large flocks) when deemed necessary.
From what I can find, the RSPCA also has little to say about the slaughter of millions of male baby chicks each year (they’re often ground up while still alive, according to PETA).
All other labels are transparent, right?
Wrong. Take the Heart Foundation Tick, which is one of Australia’s most trusted labels. Nestle’s Milo breakfast cereal earns the tick, but it contains 33 percent sugar, has just 2 grams of fibre per 100g and boasts almost 30 different ingredients, most of which are unpronounceable.
Still seem healthy? Didn’t think so.
The best thing that we can do as consumers is to learn about where food comes from and what the labels actually mean.
The more we rely on supermarket labels to tell us what is healthy, the more we’re putting our health and animal welfare into the hands of people who are more concerned with making a profit than doing us any good.
People will continue to eat eggs. People will keep buying bacon. If you don’t like the way animals are treated on farms, vote with your fork and don’t eat them (this is what I do).
Or, look for farmers that treat their animals with care and respect (local, small scale farmers are often a good place to start looking).
The Paw Approval system is far from perfect, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
If this post has grabbed you, we’ll be posting our top animal welfare reads that will change the way you think about food later this month.