Humanewashed: USDA Program Misleads Consumers About Farm Animal Welfare

Americans tuning in to ABC Nightly News one evening last fall were likely shocked by video footage of the inhumane treatment of laying hens at several facilities owned by egg giant, Sparboe Farms. The footage captured routine cruelties commonly practiced in the egg industry, such as beak cutting without pain relief, as well as acts of intentional cruelty toward the birds by workers. These acts occurred despite Sparboe’s husbandry practices being audited and certified as “superior” for animal welfare by the USDA’s Process Verified Program (PVP).

The PVP is a quality assurance program through which companies may market their products as “USDA Certified” in association with specific label claims. AWI is well aware of the PVP, having in the past challenged the program’s certification of the use of a “humanely raised” claim on meat chicken produced under conventional and inhumane methods by Perdue Farms.

Following exposure of the abuse occurring at Sparboe Farms, AWI conducted an investigation into USDA’s approval of the Sparboe animal welfare claims, which allows the company to market its products as USDA Process Verified. AWI learned that the US Food and Drug Administration cited Sparboe Farms last summer for thirteen serious violations of food safety laws, and that these violations were found during audits that took place within days of PVP inspections in which USDA auditors recorded no problems.

It was also confirmed that USDA merely verifies that a company follows its own arbitrary protocols and that certification is not based on any substantive evaluation by USDA of the company’s animal welfare practices. In essence, the USDA certification merely affirms that the company has created some kind of standard for itself, and appears to be following it. Under the PVP marketing scheme, a company may refer to their system as “humane” while making no actual concessions to animal welfare, yet still receive the USDA Process Verified seal for their animal welfare claims. They may then turn around and advertise these claims and the accompanying USDA approval to consumers.

Consumers of chicken, beef, pork and eggs cannot easily assess how the animals used to produce these products were treated. For most, labels are the only source of information about how the animals were raised. The Process Verified Program allows companies to exploit consumers by duping them into believing that animals were treated humanely when in reality they were suffering on factory farms.

The information uncovered in the investigation is laid out in AWI’s new report, Humanewashed: USDA Process Verified Program Misleads Consumers About Animal Welfare Marketing Claims. A copy of the report has been sent to the USDA Office of Inspector General, with a request that the Inspector General conduct an independent review of the PVP program and its certification of animal welfare claims.

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