Buy meat from a supermarket, and you can probably choose between organic and non-organic. But with the non-organic products, you have no way of telling whether the animal was treated well, or was stuck in a pen with little room to move. Calls are growing for meat labels that show the conditions under which the animals are raised.
In business economics, it is called a “lack of market differentiation”. Consumers are willing to pay more for a product only if they are confident that the price reflects better production and animal welfare standards. Yet farmers whose products meet standards beyond the legal minimum – but do not qualify as organic – cannot communicate this to supermarket shoppers. They face a dilemma. If they cannot convince customers that their product is better, they cannot charge a higher price for it. They have no incentive to invest in improving animal welfare.
Whether animals are kept under suitable conditions is something that the customer cannot tell by looking at the meat itself. So it has to be shown on a label on the packaging. Credibility and safety are the most important features of such labels. For producers, the decision to use a label is accompanied by significant investments in their husbandry systems: in buildings, equipment and feed. The investments must pay off in the long run through heightened market demand for their product. Both sides – producers and consumers – need reliability, which only a compulsory official labelling scheme can provide.
Many civil society organizations claim that a uniform, obligatory scheme would make it possible to initiate a restructuring of animal management throughout the European Union. There is already an EU-wide labelling system for eggs according to the type of husbandry: from 0 for organic production, up (or rather, down) to 3 for cage farming. This has influenced consumer behaviour in many EU countries. It immediately forced retailers to decide which products they wanted to stock, which in turn led to husbandry practices that were environmentally friendlier and more sensitive to animal welfare. In 2020, 18 percent of the eggs sold in the EU came from husbandry systems 0 and 1 – the organic and free-range categories.
Despite the success with eggs, politicians and the livestock industry have major reservations about mandatory, Europe-wide standards for meat. One reason is that in some EU member states, there is little public debate regarding higher animal welfare standards and the restructuring of livestock operations that this would require. Because of the single European market, it is not possible to establish national mandatory labelling schemes in each country and allow the different requirements to exist side by side.
A way out could be to set up voluntary national labelling schemes. Such an approach would not conflict with European law, but it has the disadvantage that only some of the meat on the market would be subject to labelling. While the “better” meat would probably carry a label, meat from less desirable management forms would not – and would sell at lower prices. Despite this drawback, voluntary labelling schemes can still be successful.
In the Netherlands, a label with one, two or three stars, similar to that for eggs, has been introduced for meat. “Beter Leven”, or “Better Life”, is the name of the scheme introduced by the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals. It has a high market penetration. In some supermarkets, over 90 percent of the meat products carry the label. Organically produced meat has three stars, the highest level. This scheme proves that an animal welfare label focused on conventionally produced meat can also open opportunities for organic products: contrary to the fears of the Dutch organic sector, the market share of organic meat has actually risen since the introduction of the voluntary animal welfare label. Between 2014 and 2019, the percentage of customers buying Beter Leven products remained the same: between 70 and 81 percent, depending on the type of product. But the proportion of customers who bought the labelled items “regularly”, “mostly” or “always” rose from 45 to 55 percent, and the number of male customers rose significantly.
In France, the voluntary, government-supported “Label Rouge” for poultry from small-scale, animal-friendly farms also has a high market penetration. Two-thirds of the whole chickens sold in France come from Label Rouge farms, and 97 percent of consumers are aware of the label. In Denmark, 60 percent of the population was aware of the label “Bedre Dyrevelfærd” (Better Animal Welfare) just a few years after it was introduced. This is a voluntary state labelling system for meat raised under animal-friendly conditions, which uses one, two or three hearts as symbols. For the lowest level (one heart), the farm must keep sows free-range, refrain from docking tails, and provide more space and straw for the animals than required by law.
In Germany, the Ministry of Agriculture has been delaying the introduction of an official label for years, referring the issue to the European Union. Yet 4 out of 5 respondents support compulsory labelling for all animal-based foods. Meanwhile, food retailers have become active and have introduced their own labelling system. Higher categories, such as “Neuland” and organic labels, have been introduced, but in reality they are rarely on offer, so consumer choice remains limited.
An EU-wide government labelling scheme would achieve better differentiation in the internal market, more transparency and better marketing opportunities for producers. A common solution would ease the long-overdue restructuring of livestock management. It could be accompanied by financial support using EU funds.
With regard to imports, the rules of the World Trade Organization must be observed. A compulsory welfare label could be construed as protectionism and a barrier to trade. One solution is to combine it with the traceability of products, which is now a universal requirement in international trade in meat. Specialists are studying whether it would be possible to include the husbandry system in the product code, alongside the country of origin and farm identity. The World Trade Organization would likely have no objection to this. Animal welfare labels are a good step forwards in improving meat production and consumption, however, they need to be accompanied by stricter laws.