Grocery shopping: is ethics or saving money more important?

Grocery shopping: is ethics or saving money more important?

We all want to do the right thing, but when money is tight this becomes trickier. Further confusing matters, some 'ethical' companies have been found to be merely conning us into paying more for unethical food.

lovemoney staff

Household money

lovemoney staff
Updated on 19 February 2019

We’re all supermarket bargain-hunters nowadays.

Gone are the days when we just reached for our favourite brands.

Instead, we scour the shelves for the cheapest products and save thousands of pounds a year.

But does this bargain-hunting come at a cost in terms of the treatment of staff, the animals involved and the overall impact on the environment?

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You get what you pay for

The supermarket meat chiller isn’t dominated by brands, so the meat in it is often more expensive for a different reason.

Sometimes the product is a better cut or leaner choice, but in many cases, it is more expensive because the animals have been reared in better conditions.

If an animal hasn’t been bred to grow to a bigger size, you obviously get less meat per animal, so it costs you more.

If it has had more space to move in, the farmer is able to rear fewer of the animals, so charges more for each one.

It means that buying cheap meat isn’t just a sensible financial choice: it becomes an ethical issue.

Horrendous conditions

Details of the lives of intensively-farmed animals do not make for comfortable reading.

According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in many cases they are bred to produce meat rather than for life, and in the extreme examples chickens’ bodies grow so large that they cannot stand, and die from dehydration or suffocation by their own bodies.

The conditions they are kept in mean they often cannot move, they never see real daylight and live in such filthy conditions that many of them are kept alive through the use of antibiotics.

We don’t actively choose to eat animals kept in these conditions, but the vast majority of us buy meat from animals treated this way.

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Free range is a tiny proportion

According to the British Poultry Council, free-range chicken accounts for just 5% and organic for 1% of the UK chicken production: the remaining 94% comes from intensively reared birds.

It doesn’t mean we are blind to the benefits of free-range farming. We have embraced the concept when it comes to eggs – and nowadays half of all eggs sold in supermarkets are free-range.

The 15 million free-range chickens producing our eggs is the largest flock of free-range birds in Europe.

This is a fast-growing trend too: 10 years ago only 27% of supermarket eggs were free-range, and 20 years ago it was 11%.

Money morals: do you pay more for ethical food? (Image: Shutterstock)

Price matters on meat

The fact we make the ethical call when it comes to eggs, and not when we buy meat, is likely down to cost: the price difference between free range and intensively-farmed meat is far bigger than the difference between caged and free range eggs.

A free-range chicken can cost more than twice as much; up to £4 more depending on where you shop.

Compare that to the cost of eggs: six large free-range eggs cost around £1.25, while those from caged hens cost £1. It’s a mark-up of just 25%.

Cost trumps ethics for most

It seems we do care about animal welfare – but more of us have to focus on price given the budgetary constraints.

An IGD ShopperVista survey (admittedly from back in 2014) looked at factors affecting shopper choice, and found price was rated the most important factor for 41% of people.

Meanwhile, fewer than 1% said that the ethics of the food were the most important issue.

This isn’t a choice we make easily. Nobody wants to think of animals in distressing conditions, but when we have a family to feed, we prioritise the requirements of our own family over an animal.

Cookery author, and the writer behind the Cooking on a Bootstrap blog, Jack Monroe, summed this up way back in 2013.

Monroe’s circumstances meant the family needed to live off as little money as possible.

This led to specialising in cost-effective meals, two cookery books and a blog.

Monroe wrote on her blog: “I bought Basic 80p sausages… and £1.09 cooking bacon for everything, because sometimes you just don’t have the choice.

I know that, believe me. I was surviving, experimenting, grateful for absolutely anything I could rustle up”.

Money morals: will you pay more for ethical food? (image: Shutterstock)

What food labels mean

The gulf between what we would ideally like to buy, and what we feel we can afford, has led to the growth of another option in the chiller cabinet: kept in better circumstances than intensively-reared animals, without being as expensive as free-range meat.

There are several tiers of compromise, and if we are to make an informed decision, it’s essential we know what they mean.

For chickens to be free-range, for example, they need to be kept in density of not more than 13 birds per square metre.

They also need access to outdoor space for at least half their lives. They are fed whole grains, given shelter, and live for at least 56 days.

The next step down is RSPCA Assured. This assesses farms to ensure they meet strict welfare standards, and ensures greater space and bedding materials.

There are separate labels and standards for indoor-bred meat and meat from animals that are allowed outdoors.

Finally, there’s the Red Tractor Assured Food Standards scheme, which may give a sense of comfort, but has pretty low minimums and most of the UK’s intensive poultry farms are part of the scheme.

They allow 18 birds per square metre, there’s no requirement to offer natural light – let alone outdoor access, and the birds can be killed as young as 33 days.

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Misleading labels

In 2012, the Advertising Standards Agency banned an advert claiming British pork sold with the Red Tractor label was ‘high welfare’ as being misleading.

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall pointed out the problem as part of the River Cottage Chicken Out! Campaign.

He explained: “Labelling can be very misleading and phrases such as ‘farm fresh’ and ‘farm assured’ do not always represent higher welfare systems.

“Unless the label states free-range, organic or RSPCA Freedom Food, the chicken you’re buying has probably been reared in intensive conditions.

“We want clear information on the packaging of the chicken meat so you can make the best, informed choice.”

Fearnley Whittingstall would prefer everyone to always buy free-range.

And while there are plenty of people who would argue this is unaffordable, it was the direction that blogger Monroe eventually opted for - taking the decision to “bite the bullet and go free range”.

This meant a dramatic reduction in meat consumption in order to make it affordable, a repertoire of vegetarian and vegan meals, and a number of meals where meat played a smaller role (such a sausage casserole featuring expensive free-range sausages but so few of them that the dish came in at £1-a-head).

Three years after the move to free-range, Monroe went vegan.

Fernley Whittingstall, meanwhile, eats more entirely meat-free meals, but for his meaty meals, he also recommends buying free-range cheaper cuts or whole chickens, and making the most of every single bit of the animal.

His cookery school even runs a ‘nose to tail’ course, demonstrating how to cook every part of a pig – including the trotters and cheeks.

However, as Monroe points out, this is a personal choice. The blog states that everyone can make up their own mind.

What is clear from Monroe’s experience is that it’s perfectly possible to balance animal welfare with money saving, if that’s what you choose to do.

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