Free-range meat - is it all equal?

If you buy free-range, how do you make sure you get what you pay for?
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  • Updated:6 Mar 2007

01 .Free-range meat

Chickens on grass

In brief

  • Free-range meat is currently short on definitions and standards, but there are a few labels you can look for to get the best guarantee you’re getting what you’re paying for.
  • The Humane Society International’s new Humane Choice label will be worth looking for when it becomes available in mid 2007.

Free-range can mean a variety of things — the only common bottom line is that, as for all meat production, the general welfare requirements under state-based animal welfare acts and codes must be met. Free-range animals, just by dictionary definition, shouldn’t be closely confined and will have some sort of outside access, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee animals an old-MacDonald-like experience of wandering through a farmyard of green grass and shady trees.

There are labelling schemes you can look for that give the best guarantee currently available that you’re getting what you probably think you’re paying for.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2007 but is still a useful guide today.

Industry-based schemes

Some industry groups have good schemes that certify the meat was produced to certain free-range standards and codes of practice; others just leave it to individual farmers (see the sections on individual meats: pigs, cows & sheep, chickens).

  • Some industry schemes are audited from outside the particular industry.
  • Others schemes are audited by auditors within the industry but outside the particular farm.
  • There are no government audits of any meat industry free-range standards.

Animal welfare

The Australian arm of Humane Society International (HSI) recently launched its own Humane Choice labelling scheme. It says this was done in response to the many enquiries it receives from the public, asking which meats to buy. Up to now, HSI has recommended people buy certified organic meat. But it says its new standards go further and they’re certified by one of the same government-checked schemes that certify organic produce (NASAA — National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia)

Not all animal welfare groups are equally happy to endorse free-range or any other kind of meat. Many argue that the only way to truly protect animals is to become vegetarian or vegan. This isn’t something everyone’s prepared to embrace, and the pros and cons of various animal-raising systems are beyond the scope of this article.

How much does it cost?

A CHOICE snapshot of prices in Sydney supermarkets suggests buying accredited free-range poultry costs a few dollars per kilo more — about 20% extra. Certified organic meat can cost as much as twice the price of the conventional alternative.

Supermarket meat

In addition to specific branded products, both the big supermarkets have their own-brand free-range and organic meats.

  • Coles has YOU’LL LOVE COLES Free Range chicken, accredited by FREPA, and YOU’LL LOVE COLES Organic beef and sausages, certified by Safe Food Queensland (SFQ).
  • Woolworths has WOOLWORTHS Organic (beef, lamb, pork and poultry), which it says are certified by one of the national accreditation bodies. WOOLWORTHS Free Range poultry is accredited by FREPA.

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Pig farming has become far removed from the ‘Babe’ model; intensive farming of pigs is now commonplace.

National welfare code for pigs under review

  • A debate is currently under way about the welfare of non-free-range pigs. The national welfare code for pigs, which forms the basis of state animal welfare requirements, is being reviewed. Both sides of the debate are dissatisfied with the draft proposals.
  • Animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA, are concerned the draft code doesn’t go far enough and still allows practices they find unacceptable, such as confining pregnant sows in ‘sow stalls’ and using farrowing crates for sows about to give birth and until the piglets are weaned (up to three to four weeks later), which further confine their movement.
  • The industry has supported some of the changes suggested in the new code, such as reducing the length of time sows can stay in sow stalls (from the entire 16 weeks of pregnancy to a maximum of six weeks), and it considers its practices are in the best interests of the animals. However, it also argues that any substantial change to minimum standards needs a very long lead time (15 years, rather than the 10 years proposed) because of the building and other costs involved.

As for a free-range alternative, the industry says, among other things, that much of Australia isn’t suitable for free-range pig farming because of climatic extremes and poor soil — pigs are easily sunburnt and can also suffer from heat stress, for example.

No free-range standards

While the pork industry has standards that cover pigs raised outdoors, it has none specifically defining free-range pigs, so it’s up to individual farmers to decide exactly what they mean by it within the general welfare requirements set down in the National Model Code for the welfare of pigs. As there’s no independent checking of individual free-range farmers, it comes down to trust in individual farms and brands.

RSPCA endorsement

The RSPCA recently extended its endorsement program to cover pig farming and you’ll now see some brands of pork — such as OTWAY — carrying the RSPCA logo. This means the brand conforms with the RSPCA’s standards and sends monthly reports to the RSPCA as well as receiving six-monthly RSPCA inspections.

The RSPCA pig standards ban the use of farrowing crates and sow stalls, and while the sows have outdoor access the piglets, once weaned, don’t join their parents outdoors — they’re kept in open straw-based huts, which are open to the air at the sides, but which don’t allow the pigs to go outside.

A product you might spot among supermarket smallgoods is the KR Bred Free-Range prepackaged ham and bacon. It follows a ‘bred-free-range’ system along the same lines as that described above for RSPCA pork. The KR farms are checked by an auditor independent from the farm, but associated with the pork industry.

Feedlots more common due to drought

For many years, beef and lamb in Australia were all ‘free-range’. No matter how big the operation, the animals roamed free, grazing on the wide open spaces Australia has to offer.

Beef and sheep feedlots are now becoming more common, and the drought is speeding things in this direction as grazing land in many areas is drought-affected, making feedlots more attractive.

  • The feedlot industry considers animals in its care are protected, fed and cared for if they’re sick.
  • Critics say the animals have very limited space and the environment they live in is dirty, dusty and contaminated by excrement.
  • The RSPCA doesn’t oppose feedlots as such, but has many concerns and a list of conditions it considers must be met to ensure good animal welfare. There’s no RSPCA-endorsed beef or lamb scheme at present.

Critics of the cattle industry say some traditionally reared cattle and sheep don’t fare much better — while some may live on rich grazing land where farms are small enough for all the animals to receive individual care and attention, other farms are so large they say animals are left to their own devices until round-up time. 

Links has details of where you can go for more information on the industry and animal welfare groups concerns.

Free-range guarantees limited

  • Certified organic meats have a free-range component, but the standards don’t go as far as some animal welfare groups would like, with some contentious procedures such as mulesing (cutting away skin near the tail of a sheep) and tail docking still allowed under some circumstances.
  • HSI’s Humane choice scheme prohibits these practices, and until this label hits the shops your ‘free-range’ beef and lamb guarantees are limited to certified organics.

It’s a misconception that meat chickens are kept in small battery cages — that’s solely the fate of intensively reared egg-producing chickens.

Most regular meat chickens are barn-raised, although animal welfare proponents aren’t happy with: the amount of space the chickens are allowed; health problems they say are a result of selective breeding for rapid growth of the chickens; and other practices like debeaking. 

Links has details of where you can go for more information on the industry and animal welfare groups' concerns.

Free-range accreditation

The main group accrediting free-range poultry meat is Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia (FREPA). There are other industry accreditation bodies, for example the similarly named Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia (FREPAA), but they focus mainly on eggs, and cover fewer chickens for meat production.

  • FREPA’s standards go further than general government welfare requirements and include things such as clearly specifying the quality of the outside environment — it must have vegetation and be able to keep producing it, in addition to shade and shelter. FREPA told us it regularly audits its members’ farms, using auditors not otherwise involved with the poultry industry to increase independence, but there’s no government supervision of the scheme’s auditing.
  • FREPAA, on the other hand, told us it audits its members using expert poultry auditors, as it feels the expertise in poultry is critical. Either way, buying accredited free-range chicken provides a greater degree of happy-chicken-certainty than buying a non-accredited product.

Corn-fed chickens aren’t free-range unless this is also specifically stated on the label. Corn-fed simply means that the chicken receives a different diet high in corn, which gives the meat a distinctive colour and flavour.

Certified organic chicken standards also encompass a free-range aspect, and Humane Choice is planning to have its endorsed free-range chicken on the market in the near future.

In addition to the things you might automatically associate with organic agriculture — like no pesticide use — it also has a focus on providing a natural environment for animals and fostering natural behaviours.

Certified organic meat production also includes a free-range aspect. Although there has been much debate in the media in recent times regarding problems within the organic certification system, CHOICE still considers certified organics as currently being the best guarantee that organic produce has been produced appropriately.

The organic industry is currently in effect regulated by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), because exported organic foods must meet AQIS’s National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce, and it has accredited a number of organisations as qualified to certify organic foods. The government does this to ensure Australia’s organic export markets, but Australian consumers benefit indirectly.

Standards needed

Recent debates about how much flexibility is permitted in the standards, and whether food that can’t be exported should be allowed for domestic consumption in certain circumstances, serve to highlight the urgent need for developing an agreed domestic standard and enforcement framework for organic produce sold to Australian consumers. And CHOICE will be working on making this happen.

In the meantime, certified organic produce is the best guarantee currently available.

06.Humane Choice scheme


Humane Choice logoThis new labelling scheme is about to hit supermarkets by mid 2007. It was developed by the Australian arm of the Humane Society International (HSI) in response to people asking them which meat was the best to buy in terms of animal welfare, and because of the lack of clarity around free-range labels and the lack of national free-range standards.

HSI says it previously recommended people buy certified organic produce, but its own standards go further in ensuring that farm animals have the best life and most humane death possible. For example:

  • Humane Choice bans some contentious practices that HSI thinks organic standards overlook, such as mulesing sheep in some circumstances and nose-ringing pigs (which prevents them from rooting in the earth — a natural pig behaviour).
  • It also has much stronger requirements for how animals are transported to slaughter, how long this can take and how long they can spend without water, for example.

According to HSI the Humane Choice label is designed to give consumers confidence that farm animals have the best life an animal should have. Farms using the Humane Choice labelling are audited to HSI standards by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) — an organic certification body that has been accredited by the Federal Government (AQIS) to certify organic agriculture.

Humane Choice is aiming to have its labelled products in supermarkets by mid 2007 — beef, chicken, eggs and some dairy products such as butter and yoghurt should be first off the rank, with lamb and pork to come later. Eventually it’s hoped the labelling scheme will also apply to many other products, such as milk, wool and leather.

  • Humane choice logoHumane Choice label, the Humane Society International:
    Phone: 1800 333 737.
  • Accredited Free Range logoFREPA, Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd:
    Phone: 0500 537 372.
  • FREPAA, Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia Inc:
    Phone: 07 4696 7545.

Organic certification bodies

FREPAA logoNot all are listed here, but these are two of the most common ones. For more, see CHOICE, October 2004:

  • NASAA, National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia:
    Phone: 08 8370 8455
  • BFA, Biological Farmers of Australia:
    NASAA Certified Organic logoPhone: 07 3350 5716
    It's logo is ‘Australian Certified Organic’.

Some animal welfare bodies

RSPCA logoAssociations of meat producers