Ongehoord, an organization that investigates malpractices in the animal industry, published an investigation this week about the "Beter Leven” (Better Life) certification. They also launched a petition against this label.
Beter Leven, founded in 2007 by the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals, is the largest certification seal for meat in the Netherlands. Beter Leven has a 90% share of the market for pigs' meat.
Although the Animal Protection Society claims that its label results in animal farming that produces "less and better," the Dutch livestock population has only grown since the label's inception.
In 2020, some 3.7 million pigs were kept under the Beter Leven label. The majority are kept under the so called 1-star, which is hardly different from regular production: 1-star pigs get a toy in their cage but hardly have any more space, have no access to fresh air, mother pigs are fixed in farrowing cages, piglets stay with their mother for a maximum of 4 weeks ( same for regular piglets), pig tails are docked and their canines are filed. See here what a Beter Leven looks like.
Of course, all animals end up on the killing floor, so even if their lives were very good, what does it matter if you were put into the world only to be exploited and killed for as much profit as possible? Does that toy make up for the trip to the slaughterhouse?
The label actually encourages people to continue eating meat and pacifies their conscience. Therefore, it does nothing at all to reduce livestock.
If it makes no difference to the animals, who benefits from the label?
The Animal Protection Society itself has received more than one million euros of government funding for the development and promotion of its label since 2010. In addition, they receive income from the contributions of the increasing number of participants. In 2019, this was €1.9 million. What is done with this money is unknown because the figures are not public. In a response, the Animal Protection Society states that they do not earn money from the certification mark but does not come up with a report.
Now Vion. Vion is a so-called value chain manager, the party "that registers the farms with the Stichting Beter Leven Keurmerk (the Foundation behind the label) and supervises the farms affiliated with its chain. In addition, the chain manager links the various links in the chain together, from primary farm to processor/seller and all the links in between." A powerful position, in other words.
According to Vion, together with the Dutch Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Albert Heijn and Unilever (Unox), they introduced pigs meat with one star Beter Leven in 2010.
The company's own brand "Good Farming Star" receives one star from Beter Leven in the Netherlands and in Germany it falls under the comparable brand "Für Mehr Tierschutz". Vion contracts some 185 Dutch pig farmers for this purpose. (Regular farmers are not contracted and deliver to whoever pays more). In 2014, Vion already reported increasing demand and in 2015 they entered into an agreement with Albert Heijn. This exclusive agreement implies that all Beter Leven meat from the AH (some 97%) comes from Vion, something that is obviously very profitable for the meat giant. A similar contract with Plus supermarket followed in 2019, no details are known about other retailers.
There is only one 2-star pig farmer in the Netherlands: Hamletz, which sells under the brand "Annechien's free-range meat" exclusively to AH in cooperation with Vion. Organically raised pigs receive 3 stars and Vion sells them through their subsidiary De Groene Weg. De Groene Weg slaughters 100,000 pigs a year (0.6% of Vion's total: the share of 'organic' is therefore marginal). About these 3-star pigs, Bite Back says: "Organic farmers are not allowed to castrate pigs without anaesthetics and tail trimming is less common than in intensive livestock farming. If pigs get sick, they are not given medication immediately. Nutritional supplements or homeopathy are used first. If there is really no other solution, the animal may be given regular medicine. This may only be done once, otherwise the organic farmers may no longer sell the meat as organic. In reality, this means that the animals stay sick longer. The transport of organic animals and animals from conventional farming are the same. Pigs that come from an organic farm have an equally gruesome death as their fellows from the conventional industry."
Albert Heijn also started a new brand together with Vion this year: "Better For Pig, Nature and Farmer." This is a kind of environmental extension to the Beter Leven label; but it is no more than a logo and falls entirely under its own control (see also FD). Vion and Ahold have this tendency to control their own markets in common: the more you control the value chain, the stronger you become. Vion itself says that the "Good Farming Star" program has reduced exposure to volume fluctuations for pork in the Netherlands and Germany.
Vion, as well as Albert Heijn, have received government subsidies to promote the Beter Leven label to consumers. For example, Vion received a subsidy for research into the feasibility of Good Farming Star production.
In 2017, the Ministry of Economic Affairs subsidized the cooperation with the German label "Für Mehr Tierschutz", which ensures better access to the German market and a larger market share. This is also very profitable for Vion, as the German market has many more opportunities for expansion.
As Ongehoord concludes, "The industry will not breed fewer animals for the sake of a label, because this goes against its financial interests."
The Animal Protection Society stated that it does not share Ongehoord's opinion and their "oversimplified statements which damage the label and the great trust in it".
You can look up a number of pig farmers on the Good Farming Star website. A large proportion of these farmers supply pigs to Vion.