‘Do you have free-range pork?’
‘Yes, it’s all free range!’
‘Oh, excellent! Which farm is it from?’
‘Otway’s not free range.’
This has become a regular occurrence for me. Next I school the butcher, providore, or waiter on the difference between ‘bred free range’ (aka ‘outdoor bred’) and ‘free range’ and suggest they have a look at Otway’s website, where they themselves clearly state that they are ‘bred free range’. Ditto Western Plains.
Confused yet? Fair enough. Fortunately, I’m here to help. 😉 Let me explain the three systems for raising pigs we have in Australia so you need not be confused anymore.
Pigs are kept indoors their entire lives on concrete or slatted floors. In some systems the breeders are kept in individual pens with limited movement. In others pigs are kept in groups. Some of these systems use both group and individual pens. The industry is moving away from gestation stalls (where sows are kept immobile for their entire gestation period of 3 months, 3 weeks & 3 days) due to consumer demand for higher welfare standards.
Outdoor Bred (aka ‘Bred Free Range’)
Breeding sows are kept outdoors, and farrow (give birth) in huts with access to the paddocks until they’re weaned, typically at 4 weeks. The weaners are then kept in groups in open-sided straw-based sheds, also called ‘eco-shelters’, where they spend the rest of their lives until slaughter.
All pigs are raised entirely outdoors, with free access to shelter and wallows at all times.
Within these three systems for raising pigs in Australia, there is diversity amongst farm management strategies in regards to tail docking, castration, vaccinations, weaning, sub-therapeutic antibiotics in feed, sow management, age for slaughter, and stocking density.
The peak body for pig farmers Australia Pork Limited (APL) has clear definitions for each system, and sets (voluntary) standards through the Australia Pork Industry Quality Assurance Program (APIQ). There are standards for ‘APL Gestation Stall Free’, ‘Outdoor Bred’, and ‘Free Range’. As I understand it, after much discussion within the industry, APL endorsed ‘outdoor bred’ and rejected ‘bred free range’ as a label as it was deemed confusing for consumers who are trying to choose free range.
Unfortunately, most outdoor bred growers are still using the term ‘bred free range’ on their marketing materials, and butchers and provedores just as much as consumers are often confused by the distinction (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t intentionally misleading customers).
In three separate butcher’s shops over the past two months I have asked where their pork labeled free-range was from and been told either Otway Pork or Western Plains, which are outdoor bred systems, not free range. I know of others who have had the same experience. I always tell the butcher that they’re wrong, and they apologise and profess ignorance.
I’m not interested in critiquing butchers, nor intensive or outdoor bred systems here, but I am interested in eaters being able to make informed choices. As I’ve written before, ethical decision-making is deeply reliant on the availability of accurate information. If you understand the difference in the systems and which one is in front of you, you can decide for yourself whether you are happy with that animal welfare standard. But if you are misled about the system, someone is taking that choice away from you, and you shouldn’t stand for it.
I recommend that for those who truly want only free-range pork, you do a couple of simple things:
1) always ask whether the pork is free range, whether it’s on a menu, in a butcher’s shop, or in a deli;
2) if they say it’s free range, ask the name of the farm. If it’s Otway or Western Plains, it’s not free range (there are other outdoor bred growers as well, but these two are by far the largest in Victoria);
3) print this out and take it to your butcher, cafe, or deli if they tell you an outdoor bred farm is free range – they may simply not know the difference.
Choice is great. We can all choose how we want to eat, and what sort of farming we support, so long as we can rely on accurate information. You may choose intensively-raised or free-range pork, caged or pastured eggs, conventional or organic fruit and veg, or a wholly vegan diet, but not if those of us who produce and sell the food don’t tell you the truth of what’s in it.