The Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), an agency within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), maintains a voluntary marketing program that allows companies to use a “USDA Process Verified” shield on their packaging when AMS has verified that the company adheres to a set of self-determined standards of operation. This Process Verified Program (PVP) aims to provide reassurances to consumers that companies are being truthful about the labels they put on packages. Yet, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently evaluated the PVP program and found several weaknesses.
AWI warned the USDA of these problems years before the OIG’s evaluation. In 2012, AWI investigated the PVP’s use of animal welfare claims and found that the AMS was putting its stamp of approval on “humanely raised” claims even when producers did not exceed industry standards—a requirement of the PVP at the time. After its investigation, AWI asked the OIG to evaluate the PVP as an initial step toward reform (see AWI Quarterly, summer 2012).
Three years after AWI’s request, the OIG conducted its evaluation, and confirmed the existence of major problems with the program. Unfortunately, following the evaluation, the AMS removed its requirement that producers exceed industry standards in order to use the PVP shield on packaging labels. Now, producers who wish to use claims such as “humanely raised” must merely show that they have a set of internal standards in place. It matters not whether those standards represent any actual improvement in animal welfare—merely that standards exist and are followed. This means that producers can make dubious animal welfare claims and imply to consumers (falsely) that the USDA, through the PVP, has verified the trustworthiness of the claims.