Consumers Confused over 'Free-Range Pork' Label

AUSTRALIA - It has been alleged that consumers are being misled over 'free-range pork'.
calendar icon 5 November 2010
clock icon 5 minute read

Consumers are being misled over the marketing of outdoor-raised pork, according to Australian Pork Limited's own market research.

ABC News reports that the peak industry body conducted two studies this year which found 70 per cent of consumers favoured free-range pork products but most wrongly believed 'bred free range' was the same thing.

'Bred free-range' is an emerging market trend, in which piglets are born outdoors but transferred at around 21 days of age to sheds where they are grown intensively for up to four months.

APL chief, Andrew Spencer, said: "Consumers don't actually understand it; they think it's a type of free range; they think it is really free range.

"However, when we explain it to them they don't feel deceived by the descriptor, so they're willing to accept it as a good system but not quite what they thought it meant."

Consumer distaste for aspects of intensive pig farming such as the confinement of pregnant sows in stalls for up to 16 weeks has led to a surge in demand for free-range products, although the outdoor sector still only accounts for about five per cent of Australia's $1 billion farm gate market.

The RSPCA approves the 'bred-free' descriptor because it satisfies its welfare criteria and Coles supermarkets carry a range of RSPCA-approved 'bred-free' products.

Coles has announced it will no longer sell fresh pork grown on farms using sow stalls from 2014.

ABC News reports the supermarket chain's general manager of fresh meat and seafood, Allister Watson, saying that "thousands" of its customers have complained about sow stalls, which are designed to stop fighting among pregnant sows and potential miscarriage.

But Coles denies its ban is hypocritical given that about 80 per cent of its pork products are imported from countries where the stalls are still widely used.

"We're talking about fresh pork at the moment, so all of our fresh pork is Australian and that's from Australian manufacturers and suppliers," Mr Watson said.

"The ham and bacon industry is a different proposition and we are working through with our suppliers as to what our policy would be on that in the future."

Consumer perceptions

The Tasmanian Government started the trend against sow stalls announcing this year that they would be banned from 2017, according to ABC News.

Australian Pork Limited will move a motion at its annual general meeting this month that the industry invest as much as $100 million to voluntarily phase them out of intensive production.

"It seems the consumers don't understand the industry's use of gestation stalls – they would prefer that we didn't use them," Mr Spencer said.

"I think that that's something that's moving with momentum and that as an industry we're going to need to move with that."

Australia's biggest pork producer, Rivalea, which slaughters 14,000 pigs a week, has begun its own $16 million-programme to discontinue using the stalls for its 40,000 breeding sows.

Managing director, Paul Pattison, says it is not a question of animal welfare.

He said: "The welfare argument is, at best, debatable.

"You can stack up a whole bunch of scientific data which says the welfare of sows in stalls is significant; you can also get data which is contrary to that fact.

"This is not a welfare argument as far as we're concerned.

"This is an argument about the consumer and the consumer's perceptions and we've left the welfare argument out of it altogether."

Defining free-range

Rivalea developed its own free-range farm at Corowa in the southern Riverina this year and is sending about 100 pigs a week to market, according to ABC News.

Mr Pattison says there is an urgent need for an industry 'free-range' descriptor that has credibility on environmental sustainability as well as animal welfare.

He explained: "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 everybody from APL, the industry to all the other organisations who wish to label free range, to come together and get a definition which is able to be reliably, sustainably managed.

"At the moment, that's still not happened."

The lack of minimum environmental standards in the outdoor sector is a big problem, according to the NSW Department for Industry and Investment.

The department's environmental engineer for intensive farming, Ian Kruger, says some outdoor pig farms are being run with stocking rates more than 10 times greater than the country can sustain.

"When we're stocking above 20 pigs per hectare and we're getting into the numbers of 250 or even 800 pigs per hectare, growing stock, that could create real environmental damage," Mr Kruger said. He is working with the industry on developing new environmental standards.

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