Many of us would like to shop ethically and in line with our values when it comes to buying meat. But while this might sound like a simple thing to do, in practice it can be a complicated web of labels, terminology and increasing confusion. While a certification label will tell you certain things about the meat you are considering buying, if you go to a local butcher rather than your local supermarket, you can dig deeper into the issues.

We’ve come up with some questions that can help you to find the information you need. As consumers, we are often nervous about asking questions in shops, but the more questions we ask, the more butchers and retailers will realise that these issues are important to their customers. It’s an opportunity for us to help businesses create change from within the system.

Step 1: Understand your values

This is an important first step. Take some time and consider what the most important factors are to you and let these factors inform what you are trying to find out about the animal welfare or environmental impact of the meat you are eating, then shape your questions around this.

If you value organic certification, it is worth understanding what those standards mean when it comes to animal welfare. It is also worth looking at whether the farm is committed to organic, sustainable production or if they are also producing industrially raised animals alongside their organic meat and what this tells you about the farm.

The same is true of ‘local’ as a measure. The distance from farm to table alone is not enough of an indicator to show the animal has been raised well. The size of the farm, their farming practices and the diet of their animals are also key aspects to consider alongside its locality.

Another thing worth contemplating is whether you are willing to back up your values with your wallet. For example, organic, pasture-fed beef will cost more than industrially-raised, grain-fed beef – are you willing to pay the higher price and support your butcher in making the change to a better supply?

Step 2: Prepare your questions

Preparation is key. Think through the questions you ask, and how you will respond to the answers. What questions might you follow up with? What action will you take? If you decide in advance that you won’t buy a chicken that isn’t free range, it’s much easier to walk away than if you have to decide on the spot.

It’s good to begin the conversation by explaining that the ethical sourcing of your meat is important to you, and that’s why you’re asking these questions. It opens up the conversation, rather than leaving someone feeling confronted. If they don’t currently stock something, rather than criticising this, you can offer a positive incentive by offering that you would buy it, if they sold it.

The final point is to pick your moment and be respectful of the butcher’s time; they are running a business and managing all the pressures that come with that. A decent butcher should be willing to discuss the sourcing of their meat and you shouldn’t have to apologise for asking questions; but realise that a busy Saturday when there’s a queue of people to serve behind you, might not be the perfect moment. It’s polite to ask if they have time to chat or whether you can come back later, or perhaps if they would prefer you to email questions to them.

Step 3: The questions

These are designed as a starting point but they should be shaped and adapted for your personal values.

Question 1: Can you tell me about the farm your pork/chicken/lamb/beef comes from? Is it local?

A good butcher should know the provenance of their meat – especially where and how it is raised. It is reasonable to expect them to be able to tell you the name of the farm and where it is located, even if they buy through a local abattoir. Consider asking why they source from that specific farm, as this can tell you a lot about the strength of any relationships they might have with local farms.

If the meat is not local, ask them the reason they don’t source more locally. Perhaps they have chosen a farm further afield because of the breed of pig or its organic certification or because they are unable to source more locally. We raise a lot of livestock in this country; there are few reasons for a butcher to be importing meat such as lamb from outside the UK. Have a follow-up question ready if you get an answer indicating this. This could be, ‘What are your reasons for buying from that farm?’ or ‘Why don’t you buy from a more local farm?’

Question 2: Can you tell me whether your pork/chicken is free range? Is it all free range?

For pork and chicken, free range should be the minimum standard. However, what does free range mean?

For chickens, it means that the animals have access to the outdoors but it is worth finding out what this means in more detail. Enquire about the scale of the farm – how big is the farm in acreage; how many chickens do they raise? Ask how the chickens are encouraged to roam outdoors and where the animals are fed? A chicken fed indoors under hot lamps where it is warm and cosy, is less likely to venture outside than one who is fed outdoors and is, consequently, truly free-ranging. Organic chickens are often raised in smaller flocks with a higher minimum number of doors to access the outside.

With pork, there is no legal definition of ‘free range’ but there is a distinction between pigs who are bred outdoors and those who are moved indoors after weaning (known as ‘outdoor bred’), so don’t be afraid to clarify this with your butcher.

As a final point, check whether all their pork and chicken is free range. Some butchers will source from multiple farms, so make sure you check that the same standard applies across all their meat before buying.

Follow up questions include: ‘Is all your pork/chicken free range?’ ‘Do the pigs live outside for their whole lives?’ ‘Do you know how many chickens are raised on the farm?’ ‘Do you know if chickens are fed indoors or outdoors?’ ‘Are the chickens actively encouraged to roam outdoors and forage?’

Question 3: Is the beef that you source grass-fed?

Cows are ruminant animals, meaning that their multi-stomach digestive system is designed to eat and digest grass. On more intensive farms their diets can be heavily subsidised by grain, which they cannot properly digest and this can lead to severe health problems.

The ideal situation for a cow is to be 100% grass-fed throughout their lives (known as grass-finished or pasture-reared). However, many farmers compromise and ‘finish’ (feed for the last few months before slaughter) their animals on grain to put weight on quicker and give a fattier animal.

Many farms will keep cows indoors in barns over the winter to avoid churning up and damaging the pasture in the winter months and increase weight gain, feeding on hay or silage. There are some farms across the country who raise their cattle outdoors throughout the year by keeping low stocking densities and carefully managing pasture, so if this important to you, it is worth enquiring about this.

Follow up questions include: ‘How is the animal finished?’ ‘Do you know if the cows are kept indoors over winter?’ and ‘For how many months are they kept indoors?’

Question 4: Do you sell British rose veal? How are the animals raised?

Veal has been a controversial meat over the years, mostly due to the use of veal crates which are now banned in the EU, but are legal in other countries, including the US. However, veal is a very ethical meat if raised naturally, as it provides a use for the male calves from the dairy industry that might otherwise be slaughtered at birth.

The important distinctions to make are that it’s rose veal rather than white. White veal is from calves less than 8 months old, fed on a milk-based diet and usually raised indoors, often in cramped conditions. Rose veal comes from animals aged 8-12 months old, which usually have a more balanced diet, and most significantly, have been outdoor-raised during this time. In the highest welfare systems, the calf is raised with the suckler herd, kept on the farm with its mother until weaning.

The breed is also important: 100% dairy breed cows are better from a sustainability perspective as these are the calves that would otherwise most likely be killed at birth. However, a cross-bred, dual purpose beef and dairy breed will be more flavourful, and so many consumers may opt for this.

If the butcher doesn’t currently stock rose veal, it’s worth asking if they would consider it. Providing an incentive for a butcher to alter their sourcing can be a positive way to encourage change.

Follow up questions include: ‘How old is the animal when it’s slaughtered?’, ‘Is it raised outdoors?’ ‘Do you know if the veal is from a 100% dairy calf or a cross-breed?’

Question 5: Do you make your own bacon/sausages/burgers?

An easy one to miss is the processed meat that butchers sell, known as ‘forced meats’. A lot of butchers will make their own burgers and sausages (though it is worth checking), but may buy in bacon and cured meats like hams due to the additional processing and legal regulation required. It is important to check where this meat comes from and whether the meat is from the same farm or raised to the same standards as other meat in the shop.

It is also worthwhile asking about the processes that are used. With bacon, there are three main processing methods: dry cure, wet cure and injection. Dry and wet cure are both traditional techniques, but the injection method tends to pump a significant amount of water into the meat, which can affect the final flavour of the meat and increase its overall weight.

Follow-up questions include: ‘Do you make your own sausages and burgers?’ ‘Do you make your own bacon?’ ‘How is your bacon cured?’ ‘Is it from the same farm as your other meat?’

Step 4: The review

How did you feel about the conversation? How were you treated? Were you satisfied with the answers you got? Do you need to do any further research? Would you buy meat from the butcher in the future? Was there anything you weren’t happy with?

These are just some of the questions to ask yourself afterwards. Be prepared to do some further research – if they give you the name of the farm where their chicken comes from but little other information, look the name up on the internet and see if they have a website or Facebook page. If you decide that you are happy to buy the meat they are selling, make sure you continue to check in with your butcher from time to time to see if they’re still buying from the same farms? If their sourcing has changed, ask why?

Step 5: Further reading

There is a wealth of information available on animal welfare issues and what the jargon used to describe different production systems means. An excellent introduction to the problems with our industrialised food system can be found in the film Food Inc, or the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Compassion in World Farming website has a lot of helpful information about animal welfare and the Sustainable Food Trust have a useful reference to certification and terminology.

For information about grass-fed livestock, the Pasture-fed Livestock Association has a wealth of information as does the Sustainable Food Trust website. Farms Not Factories have extensive resources about pork production and the Chicken Out website is a good reference for poultry.

This article was co-authored with Joe Wheatcroft

Joe has worked for 20 years in many aspects of the food business, from organic pig farming to washing dishes in fine restaurants. Working on farms both here in the UK and in Denmark has been really valuable when it comes to understanding the nuts and bolts of how the food is produced. He has worked in many of Bristol’s food establishments including Southville Deli, Radford Mill Farm Shop, Fishworks and Taste, and is now the co-owner, shop manager and fishmonger at the Source Food Hall and Cafe. He loves what food does to people and he doesn’t just mean the nutrients.