Know your labels - What to look out for on your supermarket shop

Have you ever picked up a packet of meat or veg in the supermarket and felt confused by what the labels on the packaging really mean? You wouldn't be alone. I was assigned by Honest Food to write a simple breakdown of labels found on your supermarket shop, so you can find out what's what! 

Know your labels - What to look out for on your supermarket shop

Pick up just about any food item at your local supermarket and turn it over — the odds are you won’t get very far into the ingredient list before you come across something that makes you stop and scratch your head. 

Food technology and prepared foods have played a significant role in securing a safe and stable supply of food. The complex manufacturing processes, the scientific jargon used on ingredients lists and marketing loopholes mean that it can be difficult for us to make informed decisions about what we’re putting into our bodies. So how do we start to understand some of the many different codes, labels and standards? Use our handy little guide below to unlock the key to an honest food choice in your local supermarket.

Method of Production

By law, all Grade A hens’ eggs must carry a stamp with a number indicating whether they have been produced organically, are free-range or created through a barn or cage system. The boxes must also state whether the eggs were from one of these three categories.

For other grades of hen’s eggs, or other eggs products (such as liquid egg and eggs as ingredients in other food products), they are not required by law to state their origin. In this case, you cannot guarantee if, for example, that pre-made cake in the bakery section has used free range or organic eggs, unless specifically written on the packaging. Some brands like to use these as a unique selling point, as opposed to a legal requirement.

Another condition that is still widely petitioned, is that eggs laid by other species of poultry such as duck, quail or geese do not require any labelling. However, in a similar way to egg-based products, higher welfare systems such as free-range usually write this on the label, whereas standard intensive production do not.

 You’ll be sure to find organic meats, milk, eggs and their products through clear labelling, with some labelling being more descriptively. Some of words to look out for include ‘straw bedded’ for pig products and ‘with natural light and enrichment’ for chicken products.

Country of Origin

Across a range of food products, you will find the country of origin on the label. In the EU, it is a legal requirement to label beef and veal on the country where the animal was born, the country of fattening and the country of slaughter. The same rule applies for fresh and frozen meat from pigs, sheep and poultry, except the birth place is usually not shown. Always consider that these numbers can give you an insight into long distance live animal transport, the length of the food chain and the number of different countries involved.

Quality Assurance Standards

Along with the method of production and country of origin, there are logos that adhere to the EU’s legislation for Quality Assurance Standards that signify whether you are choosing an honest food product.

Quality Assurance in the UK is a set of standards that have been chosen and implemented by brands to show commitment to delivering quality products and services to customers. Here are some of the common ones and what they mean for the product you’re buying:

Soil Association

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Soil Association is an organic standard which offers many welfare benefits above the standard industry practice. This includes prohibiting confinement systems, ensuring bedding and environment enrichment, free-range access with both shade and shelter, specifying slaughter and stunning practices and monitoring welfare through outcome measures. You tend to find this on products such as coffee, chocolate, vegetables such as potatoes and organic steaks. This will also be marked as ‘certified by the Soil Association’.


RSPCA Assured

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RSPCA Assured is the organisation’s labeling scheme dedicated to improving welfare standards for farm animals. This offers many welfare benefits that goes above the minimum industry standard. The scheme covers both indoor and outdoor rearing systems and ensures that greater space, enrichment materials and bedding are provided. On-farm health is also a requirement, alongside the processes for stunning and slaughter being specified. You tend to find this certification on most meat products, as well as some eggs and fish fillets. The RSPCA Assured certification already reaches 30% of all UK pig production, with the hope to increase over the coming years.

Red Tractor

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One of the most commonly found symbols, the Red Tractor scheme, run by Assured Food Standard, certifies that food was produced in Britain. To achieve this certification, food must meet certain quality standards including safety, hygiene, and the environment and reflects standard industry practice in the UK.  Some of standards go beyond the minimum legislation, such as prohibiting the castration of pigs, a slightly reduced stocking density for chickens and the requirement for on-farm health and welfare monitoring.

However, there are some parts of the industry standards that this inadequately reflects. This includes provisions for pigs, not addressing welfare conditions such as confinement of sows during farrowing and permanent housing and tethering of dairy cows.
 

The Lion Mark

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sually seen on eggs, the Lion Mark ensures that they meet food safety criteria. This standard generally only ensures minimum legislative requirement for animal welfare, so permits the use of ‘enriched eggs’ for hens, as well as barn and free-range system. However, you can always ensure that the eggs were laid in Britain.

For both the Red Tractor and Lion Mark schemes, they also offer free-range production, so their logos may appear on free-range meat, as well as eggs. 

Cautious food choices ensure that the practices of how our food is really made is bought to the forefront of our minds. While many a logo can be found, these most common ones inform us of the conditions of animals and the environmental impact caused by the foods we purchase day-to-day. If you’re looking for a way to be more sustainable with what you eat and drink, right down to that morning cup of tea, then make sure you consider these points at the checkout.