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Pork: Checking-In on the Labels

I was heartened to hear about Burger King’s decision to move towards cage-free eggs and “cage-free” pork (at least in the United States). But what exactly is cage-free pork? As Twilight Greenaway points out in the Grist food blog, it’s possible that Burger King has invented the term.

What they are really referring to are gestation crates, which are used to restrict the movement of pregnant sows. In other words, Burger King is committing to stop sourcing from facilities that use gestation crates; however sows are also caged in farrowing crates during nursing and the meat pigs often live in crowded crates or cages. It doesn’t seem like they are committing to using suppliers who also eschew these practices.

All this re-raises the issue that many terms used by the food and animal agriculture industries are not regulated, leaving companies and their PR firms to spin the terms however they want (or at least, however they feel they can get away with.) It’s the nature of the marketing beast.

Here are terms that I have come across with regards to pork. Some of these I saw while in the UK last year when I was hunting down pork pies made with pork that I considered ethically acceptable. Incidentally, the issue of pork labeling brought very publicly challenged in the UK in 2010 when the grocery Chain Waitrose starting using the term “outdoor bred” in its advertising and labeling. The ad campaign was eventually ruled as misleading by the Advertising Standards Authority in the country. (I don’t think they had jurisdiction over the term.)

  • Natural Pork: The pigs are raised in open barns. They have access to straw or sawdust bedding and are not given prophylactic antibiotics or fed animal by-products. This label may also mean that the pigs have access to the outdoors, but don’t assume this is the case when you see naturally-raised.
  • Rustic Farm Pork: This is being used by DuBreton and seems to be the same as “Natural”. The pigs are raised in open barns. They have access to straw or sawdust bedding and are not given prophylactic antibiotics or fed animal by-products.
  • Raised Without Antibiotics: Only tells you about the use of prophylactic antibiotics. The pigs may still be raised in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) and in cages.
  • Outdoor Bred: The pigs are born and kept outside until they are weaned away from their mothers. They are then raised indoors, which may be in straw barns or more confined factory farming operations. The female sows are kept outside in fields as long as they remain breeders. (UK term)
  • Outdoor Reared: The pigs are born and kept outside until they reach 30 kg, which is about half their life. They are then raised indoors, which may be in straw barns or more confined factory farming operations. The female sows are kept outside in fields as long as they remain breeders. (UK term)
  • Free Range: The pigs are completely born and raised outdoors in field until they are sent for slaughter. The female sows are kept outside in fields as long as they remain breeders. (UK term)
  • Organic: In Canada, the pigs are raised in open barns with bedding and access to the outdoors. They are not given prophylactic antibiotics or fed animal by-products. They are fed organic and GMO-free fed. There are minimum space and other requirements. This is a federally-legislated definition. Farms are certified and periodically audited to ensure compliance.
  • Heritage: Implies that the pig is a traditional breed such as Berkshire, Tamworth, or Yorkshire. These breeds are generally not suited to factory farming so it is very likely that they are free range.
  • Traditionally-Raised: This label is being used by Metro stores. The pigs are raised in open barns with access to the outdoors. They are fed grains. No further information is available. Traditionally-raised is also used by a lot of small, independent pig farmers to mean that their pigs are outdoor-raised in a pasture (i.e., free range).
  • Canadian Pork: Simply means that the pigs were raised in Canada. Nothing more. It does not mean improved food safety, better animal welfare or lower environmental footprint.

As a comparison, most hog farming in Canada (and especially in Quebec) is industrial. Most farms raise over 2000 pigs in tight confinement in indoor barns. They also use a lot of antibiotics and water, and there are some very serious concerns about water and air quality around these hog farms, not to mention waste.  Even the Canadian Medical Association has spoken out about industrial hog farms. If you are interested in learning more, a radio documentary was produced in 2008 about Quebec hog farming called PigShit! It’s an enlightening listen. There is also the NFB film Bacon, which focusses on the Quebec hog industry. And another feature from CBC in 1996 is here. (Note that the moratorium and standards referred to in this feature are no longer in place.)

I actually like what the UK has done around pork labeling. (Even if I think they are probably painting a rosier picture in their promotional materials than the reality the pigs probably face.) Although not regulated, there are agreed-upon definitions across the industry which have been supported by educational campaigns by the industry to the consumers. They also require very specific labeling, including country of origin, and have a food service code of practice which also requires clear labeling. Of course, there are always loopholes.

So what do you think of the Burger King announcement about cage-free eggs and pork? What do you think about food labeling of pork and other meat products in Canada?

Photo credit: Scott Bauer, US Department of Agriculture, Public Domain License

Posted in Articles, Canadian Regions, News, Quebec, Various.

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4 Responses

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  1. Alison says

    I would love for all food labeling to be clearer and more consistent. Unless you have a degree in nutrition it is so easy to be misled. Then there is the fact that many manufacturers simply cheat, as per a recent Montreal Gazette article demonstrating that the vast majority of nutritional claims on processed foods are wildly inaccurate. So, even if you get a PhD in label reading, you still don’t know what you’re buying. I wish food was less about mareting and more about FOOD. This is an industry that has proven itself incapable of responsible self-regulation. In general, I am not in favour of the government poking their nose in everywhere, but this is clearly a case where a hard stand, not influenced by industry lobbying is in order!

  2. Lisa C from Iroquois, ON says

    LIke you I was impressed when I heard the news but I am now somewhat dismayed at the range of loop holes available as per your article. We used to raise pigs here. Always in pairs so they wouldn’t be alone and they got mostly kitchen scraps. When the apples were falling out of the trees in the neighborhood they’d regularly break out of the pen to visit the neighbors trees. Picture three adults waving and yelling and two dogs barking and pacing, trying to herd snuffling grunting well fed pigs across gardens and fields away from fermenting fallen apples. I laugh now but at the time it was bloody frustrating. Every spring I swore I was going to teach them to watch on a lease but of course I never got around to it.

  3. The Exclamation says

    > So what do you think of the Burger King announcement about cage-free eggs and pork?

    I’m glad they’ve been pressured to start entering this century. About 17 years too late, based on when these changes will have been completed. When they do finally reach this centrury, maybe I’ll think about eating there. But I don’t see that happening for a long time. Even if Burger King can proclaim “Now with less torture!!!” the thing on my plate is still antibiotics in water held together by some kind of membrane. Not appetizing, never mind any of the other reasons to feed myself elsewhere.

    The loophole article was interesting. I’ve been noticing a lot of that sort of thing in my regular “Canadian” groceries as well.

    t!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. DuBreton Organic Pork in Quebec – The Mindful Table linked to this post on May 28, 2013

    […] exclusively exported because of a lack of demand in this province. Last year, when I did my round-up of various pork labels being used in North America, I mentioned DuBreton, but honestly I almost never saw their products in […]



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