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


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.


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