Free-range pork standards come under scrutiny as the industry debates the definition

piglets on a sunny day, playing beside a mud hole
Under Australian standards, free-range pork farms may give pigs only a few metres of straw.(ABC Rural: Angus Mackintosh)

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Free-range pork standards may not align with your expectations, giving pigs only a few metres of straw under minimum rules. 

Key points:

  • Free-range pork standards may not line up with customers’ expectations, giving pigs only a few metres of straw
  • A farmer and an RSPCA officer say more transparent labelling would clarify how pigs are farmed
  • One free-range farmer has turned to online meat sales to market his premium Christmas hams directly

And some farmers and animal welfare experts believe more clarity is needed to show shoppers how Australian pork is raised.

“Some so-called free-range places might allow 10 or 20 square metres per pig,” West Australian pig farmer Bryan Hickman said.

“It’s better than a concrete house. They can dig in a bit of dirt and roll around in straw.

“But it’s not free-range.”

He maintains that pigs on large paddocks are happier and develop more muscle tone, producing a more flavourful product.

Bryan Hickman stands beside one of his pigs
Bryan Hickman’s pigs are given open paddocks to roam, “600 or 700 square metres each”, he says.(ABC Rural: Angus Mackintosh)

RSPCA farm animal officer Sarah Babington said that farms with the same ‘free-range’ accreditation could vary significantly in size under existing certification schemes.

“There’s a need for improved transparency across the board for how we are raising our animals,” she said.

“Perhaps that does require more transparent, clear labelling.”

How free is free-range?

To be certified ‘free-range’ by the Australian Pork Industry Assurance Program (APIQ), pig farms must provide 1.5 times more outdoor space than indoor space.

Dawson Bradford sits in his piggery with a smile on his face.
Dawson Bradford at his piggery near Narrogin, WA.(ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

RSPCA approved farms must meet the same ratio for outdoor space with room for pigs to rest, exercise, explore and be social.

“Spacing will vary significantly [between farms], but the focus really should be on ensuring the pigs have enough room to perform their natural behaviours,” the RSPCA’s Sarah Babington said.

She said the RSPCA was focused on improving pigs’ welfare in intensive piggeries, which produce the majority of Australian pork, rather than changing its free-range standard.

Dawson Bradford,  who operates an intensive indoor piggery in the WA Wheatbelt, is a director at Australian Pork Limited, the national industry body for pork producers.

“The Australian pig industry has come a long way, and we haven’t waited for regulation,” he said. 

“There are different production models through APIQ, whether that’s free range, outdoor-bred, indoor-bred and outdoor-grown,” Mr Bradford said.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the brands to differentiate their production and tell the provenance story.”

Ham direct to your door

Australian Pork Limited estimates 5 per cent of Australian pigs are on free-range farms, making further segregation of these products unlikely on an industry-wide basis.

Mr Hickman partnered with a direct-to-customer meat seller to market his pork products this year.

The business processes and delivers its pork to customers around WA. Christmas hams from his pigs are a flagship product this holiday season.

“It gives consumers access to these kinds of products have been limited historically,” Dirty Clean Foods CEO Jay Albany said.

a van delivers boxes of meat
Many customers are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of home delivery and to know the farms producing their meat.(Supplied: Dirty Clean Food)

Unlike industry accreditation or labelling schemes, provenance-based business models allow farmers to set their own standards for animal welfare or quality.

And in Australia, the market for meat delivery services has exploded.

Two years ago, 75 per cent of Dirty Clean Food’s meat products went to restaurants and other businesses. Now, 90 per cent is delivered directly to customers.

Muscle and flavour

A premium market is essential to Bryan Hickman’s farm, given it is one of the smallest in the country with 20 times fewer pigs than Mr Bradford’s piggery.

“I produce a different sort of product, and that’s why I keep doing it this way,” Mr Hickman said.

His criticism of pork labelling has as much to do with flavour as it does with pigs’ welfare.Where does your bacon come from?New research finds most bacon on supermarket shelves isn’t home-grown.Read more

“Mass-produced hams are built up with fillers. It’s like salty water with gelatine in it — they’ve diluted the product,” he said.

“My pigs have muscle tone, and I put nothing in there. There’s no bulking up with liquids, and the flavour hits you like a shovel.”

Mr Bradford said he had not seen any research that showed differences in eating quality in terms of production systems.

“Some high-priced meat around the world is raised on acorns to give it that flavour, but throughout Australia I think you’d find most of the bites are pretty generic, fed on a wheat and barley diet,” he said.

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