01.The free-range pork dilemma
Will there be some pork on your fork this week? And if so, will you give any thought to its journey from paddock to plate?
It’s estimated that 97% of the 4.8 million pigs produced annually in Australia are raised indoors with no outdoor access. These farms are variously referred to as intensive, conventional or factory farming. Only the other three per cent is free range or organic pigs.
In this report you'll find:
What are the regulations around free range pork?
Animal welfare concerns mean some consumers are prepared to pay extra for free-range pork products. But with no legally binding definition of free range in Australia, producers and retailers are free to make their own decisions about free-range labelling. The animals can be farmed under a wide variety of conditions that may not gel with consumer perceptions of free range.
While the states police animal welfare issues, the policing of free-range labelling falls to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which can investigate if complaints are made about misleading free-range labels.
The closest we have to an official definition of free range comes from the federal government’s Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Pork. This sets out the minimum farming standards with which producers are legally obliged to comply.
The Model Code describes the “outdoor” farming method as “free range in paddocks with shelter such as arks or huts”. It doesn't specify any extra welfare provisions as part of free-range systems. This means animals can be raised according to minimum welfare standards of the code, but as long as they have access to an outside area they can be called free range.
One welfare concern about pigs that may drive some consumers to consider paying a premium for free range is stocking densities – how many animals are held together in a space of a certain size and how much room they have to move around.
For pigs raised indoors, the Model Code Pork requires less than 1m2 per 120kg pig.
For outdoor pigs, the maximum stocking limits for sows and boars (used mainly for breeding) are “recommended” in the code, but there are no guidelines around the maximum number of grower pigs (used for meat) that can be kept in paddocks. So consumers have no way to telling how much space "free-range" pigs really have.
Other concerns raised about the treatment of pigs include the use of sow stalls and farrowing crates (see Jargon Buster), teeth clipping and tail docking, as well as the use of drugs such as lean muscle-building ractopamine. All these practices are allowed under the Model Code.
True free range?
The loose definition of free range is a source of frustration to some smaller farmers, who claim consumers are being misled by big Australian pork producers whose methods don’t fit with how many consumers perceive free range pork, ham and bacon.
“You won’t find genuine free range in the sense that consumers understand it in supermarkets,” says Ben Cinch, owner of The Free Range Butcher. "The big brands are looking for maximum marketing appeal at the supermarket shelf, for minimum system changes on the farm.”
For more on organic and free range, see our section on food and drink.