Lawsuit Targets USDA’s Failure to Address Food Label Deception

AWI sued the US Department of Agriculture in November for failing to respond to a four-and-a-half-year-old rulemaking petition. The petition calls for regulations under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act to improve transparency and consistency on consumer food labels. The USDA’s existing policy on approving label claims allows a producer free rein to choose whatever claims it feels are most suited to market its product—nearly irrespective of what level of animal care the producer actually provides. The result is that many products bearing lofty claims such as “humanely raised” come from animals subject to living conditions that are no better than abysmal industry standards.

Prior to filing its petition, AWI thoroughly researched the USDA’s label-approval process and determined that labels were routinely approved with little or no documentation from the producer to justify the use of an animal-raising claim. We published our findings in the report Label Confusion: How “Humane” and “Sustainable” Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Consumers. To promote transparency and consistency, our petition asked the USDA to promulgate regulations to require third-party certification of animal welfare and environmental sustainability label claims. Third-party certification would ensure that producers who make these claims exceed industry standards in a consistent and meaningful way.

The USDA attempted to resolve problems with its label-approval process in 2016 by issuing a guidance document for producers using animal-raising claims. However, the guidance document was so inadequate that more than 99 percent of those who submitted feedback during the comment period opposed it. Through additional research, AWI has found that the USDA’s label-approval process continues to allow producers to use misleading or meaningless claims.

Consumers are victimized by such false advertising and overwhelmingly oppose the USDA’s practice of allowing producers to create their own definitions for certain claims. According to an AWI-commissioned survey conducted by The Harris Poll in September 2018, 81 percent of frequent purchasers (4+ times per month) of animal products said that producers should not be allowed to set their own definitions for claims about how farm animals are raised. In a separate survey conducted on AWI’s behalf, The Harris Poll found that 83 percent of consumers agree that it is important to verify via independent inspection the claims on food packaging about how farm animals are raised. AWI’s petition addresses these consumer concerns.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of AWI by the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, asserts that the USDA failed to respond to our petition in a timely manner, as the department is required to do under the Administrative Procedure Act. If the USDA were to finally implement rules, as requested in the petition, consumers could more confidently use their purchasing power to support farms that truly do provide their animals with a better living environment, resulting in a more level playing field for such farms and, ultimately, a shift in the market toward better treatment of farm animals. AWI will continue to update our members about the progress of this case.