Over the past ten years, public interest in sustainably-produced food (especially meat) has increased significantly and shoppers are willing to pay more for food that has been produced to a higher standard: evidence the fact that the organics sector of the industry has grown more than 145% between 2004 and 2012. Since most consumers won’t make it out to the farm or ranch they’re buying from, food labels are the primary source for guidance when it comes to meat, eggs and dairy. A national survey (by Harris Interactive, 2013 ) indicates that they want the labels’ wording to be both meaningful and verifiable.
A report just released by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) regarding the USDA’s acceptance of certain language for meat, poultry and egg packaging speaks to two alarming concerns:
• there are no standardized, consistent definitions for the terminology, and
• there is no substantive set of requirements with which producers’ claims must comply.
The report calls for codification of labeling language as well as third-party certification of production practices.
Without these measures, the public is at best confused and at worst open to being misled by false claims from unscrupulous producers who capitalize on the surging interest in sustainability and exploit the absence of oversight. Since prices are higher for meat from farms that take the high road, shoppers might choose a less costly competing product with the assumption that government oversight protects them from misleading labels. This negatively impacts the profits of farms that are actually sustainable and jeopardizes their welfare.
Over the last three years, AWI solicited documentation from the USDA (under the Freedom of Information Act) regarding various animal welfare and environmental claims from numerous producers. All but five were unaddressed, with the USDA citing a lack of paperwork. And in the case of those five, the replies were often dubious; a one- or two-sentence statement lacking in specifics was not atypical. Meaningful information regarding the producer’s practices was provided in only two cases.
While the USDA’s responsibility does not, for the most part, extend to the regulation of facilities for raising animals, it does have the authority to regulate labels to ensure that they are not misleading. To fulfill this role responsibly, the agency must create meaningful standards for labels and establish legitimate mechanisms for ensuring compliance with these standards when labels are used. It does so for certain labels (e.g., organic), but not for the labels identified by AWI, instead relying on information provided by the producers themselves, which may be less than accurate.
When the USDA approves a labeling claim of “humanely raised”, the department is often looking narrowly at only one attribute of animal welfare such as whether prophylactic antibiotics were administered to the animals. Other factors, such as access to pasture, size of enclosures, flooring, sunshine allowance, handling methods and more might be ignored.
By the same token, the word “sustainable” can refer to many issues from farming to transportation, processing and post-purchase procedures such as storage and preparation, but the USDA accepts claims that relate only to physical environment.
In their report, AWI specifies the following animal welfare and environmental labeling claims that are approved by the USDA regardless of no supporting evidence:
- Animal Compassionate
- Animal Friendly
- Free to Roam in a Stress-Free Environment
- Humanely Raised
- Humanely Raised and Handled
- Humanely Raised on Sustainable Family Farms
- Humanely Treated
- Raised in a Humane Environment
- Raised with Care
- Sustainable Family Farmed
- Sustainably Farmed
In response to their findings, AWI has petitioned the USDA to require third-party certification of claims involving sustainability and humane treatment of livestock, insisting on transparency of production methods as well as a set of requirements for submission of applications for label approval. Such organizations exist: Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, Certified Humane and others; the USDA’s Certified Organic label is also regulated and third-party verified. Further, AWI is calling for the codification of language used in the labeling, both in terms of definition and consistency across different products.
It is important to recognize that some producers do use this terminology appropriately. For example, the family farmer at a farmers’ market might label a product “Humanely Raised” because that term is truly accurate; usage of the terminology itself does not imply that the product is coming from a factory farm. But the difficulty for consumers arises from the fact that there is currently no way of distinguishing authenticity from misrepresentation.