As interest in farm animal welfare and environmental sustainability increases, more and more producers of meat, poultry, dairy, and egg products seek to assure potential customers—via claims on food packaging—that their animals are raised using higher standards. Unfortunately, it can be hard for consumers to determine the truth of these label claims for a number of reasons. For one, the public has a limited ability to see how the animals are actually treated on farms. Two, some producers make claims that are of little value when it comes to animal welfare and sustainability—often such claims are intentionally misleading in an effort to provide false assurances of humane and environmentally sound practices. And three, the US Department of Agriculture, the entity that should be monitoring the use of such claims and protecting consumers from deceptive practices, often fails to do so in any meaningful way.
AWI works diligently to ensure that individuals concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food are knowledgeable about food choices. In addition to educating the public about the myriad welfare problems associated with industrial animal agriculture—from living conditions on factory farms to inhumane treatment at slaughterhouses—we help people who want to support high-welfare farms know what to look for in the marketplace and avoid being taken in by deceptive claims on food packaging. To this end, we develop guides to help consumers know which label claims and animal welfare certifications are trustworthy, investigate how the USDA approves the use of animal-raising claims found on packages, and challenge misleading claims.
As part of its investigatory work, AWI recently published an update to its 2014 report, Label Confusion: How “Humane” and “Sustainable” Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Consumers. The new report, Label Confusion 2.0: How the USDA Allows Producers to Use “Humane” and “Sustainable” Claims on Meat Packages and Deceive Consumers, evaluates the USDA’s label approval process for claims aimed at consumers interested in animal welfare and sustainability. The core finding of the report is that the USDA continues to fail consumers when it comes to ensuring animal-raising claims on meat and poultry packaging are honest and accurate.
The limited measures the USDA has taken to ensure food labels are trustworthy consist of asking producers to voluntarily define label claims on their packaging and providing guidance to producers to help with the label approval process. Unfortunately, based on AWI’s research, it appears these measures have not been effective. Many producers choose not to comply with the USDA’s recommendation to define animal-raising claims on product packaging. Of the producers that do, the definitions provided are often irrelevant to the claim or too vague to help a consumer understand what the producer means.
For example, one producer defined “humanely raised” as “meets [the producer’s] humane policy for raising chickens on family farms in a stress-free environment.” This definition is at best incredibly vague and at worst utterly circular (the animals are humanely raised because they are raised according to our humane policy). It certainly offers no actual information for a consumer to understand what the producer specifically did to ensure the animal was indeed “humanely raised.” What exactly is the company’s “humane policy” and what does it entail? What is a “stress-free environment?” “On family farms” certainly sounds good, but in reality says nothing substantive about whether the animal was raised to a higher standard of care. (Sadly, many “family farms” have become cogs in the industrial system.)
The report also explains that, despite the USDA’s guidance for the label approval process, the approval system is still easily manipulated by producers who want to make claims on their packages without making any improvements to the treatment of animals raised under their care. For example, even when producers underwent pre-market label approval for their packages, the USDA allowed inadequate substantiation for animal-raising claims. Producers submitted bare-bones affidavits or operational protocols (descriptions of how the animal was cared for) utterly lacking in detail. AWI also examined label approval files that contained ample justification for one animal-raising claim but no information to support other claims.
When AWI sees deceptive food labels that could negatively affect animal welfare and contribute to consumer confusion, we challenge their use by a variety of means. Recently, for example, we successfully challenged the claim “ethically raised” on Hatfield pork products before the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau. (You can read the decision in that case at http://bit.ly/NAD-Hatfield.)
To aid consumers in choosing products that conform to their preferences about animal welfare, AWI has also updated A Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare. The new version of the guide divides claims about how farm animals are raised into four categories: “best choices,” “next best choices,” “potentially good choices,” and “beware of these labels.”
“Best choice” labels adorn the packaging of items produced under the highest animal welfare standards, and compliance with these standards is verified by a third-party auditing program. “Next best choices” are claims associated with animal care standards that are somewhat less stringent but still better than industry norms, and compliance is at least verified by a second-party (such as a trade association) or independent third-party certification program. “Potentially good choices” includes label claims that are relevant to animal welfare, but either no clear standard exists for the claim, or compliance is not verified on the farm via third-party audits. Because of the lack of verification, the level of animal welfare can range from very low to very high for different products with the same label claim. Finally, under “beware of these labels,” we warn about commonly used label claims that are meaningless or misleading with respect to animal welfare.
Vague, subjective animal-raising claims, such as “ethically raised,” “responsibly raised,” and “thoughtfully raised,” fall into the final category and are characterized as misleading, in large part because no definitions and no third-party certification programs exist for the claims. AWI cautions consumers that these claims are a marketing tactic with little or no relevance to animal welfare. Want to learn more? A Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare is available in both pocket and full-length versions, via mail order or download, at www.awionline.org/food-label-guide.