Food labels 'confuse' consumers

June 14, 2005

Information given about animal welfare on food labels is confusing because it varies widely between countries and between different certification bodies, research at Cardiff University has found.

The study was conducted by Professor Jonathan Murdoch and Dr Emma Roe of the University's School of City and Regional Planning as part of a major European research programme to improve animal welfare in agriculture across the continent.

They found that welfare-friendly food labels across Europe can be based on competing definitions of animal welfare and often reflect different welfare standards.

Welfare-friendly labels can be divided into three broad groups; those with an explicit welfare content, such as 'Freedom foods' in the UK; those with an implicit welfare component, such as the various organic certification schemes; and those with a more ambiguous welfare component, such as the various quality labels that appear on food products.

Moreover, the researchers say, these different labels can also reflect different approaches to welfare, ranging from the scientifically-based approach of 'Freedom foods' which combines notions of animal health, animal feelings and the ability to express natural behaviours to the more exclusively ecological approach of organic certification schemes.

To complicate matters further for conscientious consumers, not all high quality, high animal-welfare foods are labelled as such, they say.

In Norway, for example, few products are explicitly labelled as being welfare-friendly, as Norwegian consumers already assume that blanket state regulations will ensure a high level of welfare across all animal food products. Similarly, in the UK certain supermarkets prefer to embrace animal welfare claims within their own retailing brand rather than labelling specific products as welfare-friendly.

The study forms part of a major five-year project on the welfare of cattle, pigs and poultry, in which experts in the School of City and Regional Planning are joining 42 other institutions in 14 countries.

"Animal welfare is of real importance to consumers across Europe," said Dr Mara Miele, of Cardiff University, a member of the European project's steering committee. "Nowadays food quality is not only determined by the overall nature and safety of the end product but also by the perceived welfare status of the animals from which the food is produced."

The project, known as Welfare Quality, will take into account society's concerns and market demands, to develop reliable on-farm monitoring systems, product information systems and practical ways to improve animal welfare.

Cardiff University

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