For many, eating animal products involves some cognitive dissonance.
Americans tend to think that the farmed animals we eat were treated better than they actually were. In one 2017 survey, 75% of respondents reported eating humane meat. Yet not even 1% of farmed animals come from humane operations (outside factory farms).
Part of this disconnect comes down to the vague word “humane.” The USDA allows food producers to use terms like “humanely raised” for industry-standard practices – essentially, factory farming. The research of the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) suggests that this flies in the face of what most people want and expect. 80% of consumers in a recent survey did not consider these types of conditions to be genuinely humane.
Food manufacturers have taken advantage of this vagueness by labelling all sorts of products humane. The campaign organization Farm Forward has documented numerous cases of humanewashing, or labelling and packaging that misleads the public about the conditions in which animals live before being turned into food.
There’s very little oversight of whether these labels are accurate. It’s the job of regulators to sniff out gaps, but regulators have been falling down on the job.
The USDA doesn’t visit farms and trusts the information that producers submit – if they submit information at all. Much of the time, even this basic step doesn’t take place.
For a recent analysis, the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) used the Freedom of Information Act to request the application documents backing up 97 claims, like “humanely raised” and “animal welfare,” presented on meat and egg labels. In nearly half of the cases, the USDA could not provide any such documents. More than a third of the time, the documents received were not relevant or sufficient to prove the claims being made.
“Since the USDA does not go on farms to review how farmed animals are treated…the USDA has to rely on the documentation that supplied by the producer. And we have found that that documentation is often seriously lacking in substance,” says Dena Jones, the director of AWI’s farm animal program. (The USDA did not respond to a list of questions.)
What this means in practice is that as with certain environmental claims like “sustainable”, livestock companies are essentially free to define terms like “humane” however they see fit. A company might slap the label “humane” on its packaging simply because it doesn’t give its children antibiotics, even if those chickens never see daylight.
According to Jones, the problem is twofold. On the one hand, “consumers end up spending more for products that don’t meet their expectations.” On the other hand, “There is no incentive to producers to exceed industry standards when using these claims, unless we’re able to successfully challenge them – or until the USDA changes its practice.”
Problems with food labelling aren’t limited to the US. In the UK, says Philip Lymbery, the CEO of the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming, “The majority of the meat and milk in this country are factory farmed, but you wouldn’t know that from the label…The majority of farmed animals live in conditions of utter deprivation on factory farms.”
Lymbery believes that it’s everyone’s right to know how their food was made. And in order to exercise this right, “The government and the industry need to do a much better job when it comes to labelling of meat and milk. Currently consumers are being blindfolded.” Consumers can remove the blindfolds in part by using resources like the CIWF shopping guide.
Similarly, in the US AWI offers a consumer guide to food labels and animal welfare. Recommended certifications include Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW and Vegan/Certified Plant-Based. Adding to the complexity, the organization recommends certain certifications for only specific products: for example, Certified Humane just for pasture-raised eggs, and Regenerative Organic Certified for products other than dairy.
AWI has also recommended the internet browser extension Consciously, which provides information about genuinely humane consumer products.
While Farm Forward also offers a label guide, the group has suggested that cutting down on animal products is easier than wading through the tangle of often deceptive food labels on meat, dairy, and eggs.
At the European level, only one business – Norway’s Norsk Kylling – is completely compliant with the Better Chicken Commitment. This reflects good standards in areas like providing natural light and avoiding the worst overcrowding of chickens.
As useful as these kinds of certifications can be, there’s a dizzying range of them, and it can be daunting for an ordinary person to muster up the time and energy to check each label. This isn’t about individual ignorance; in some cases marketers are seeking to deliberately evade and mislead. Thus most of the work has to be put in by governments, to ensure that the labels on foods accurately reflect how those foods were produced, without shifting that burden onto consumers.
An example is organic labelling in the US. For a very long time there was no explicit link between animal welfare and organic farming, even if organic products carried a perceived welfare halo for many consumers. Jones says that it wasn’t until the Obama presidential administration that animal welfare was finally incorporated into organic definitions, yet the Trump administration subsequently withdrew that rule. Until the rule is reinstated, AWI does not accept organic as necessarily higher welfare, specifically for eggs.
One area where the public could have an impact is in pressuring the government for better regulation. AWI has a petition to the Secretary of Agriculture to improve the accuracy of animal product labelling. AWI has also filed a legal petition that would require third-party certification of terms like “humane” and “sustainable.” (However, even independent certifiers have been found to give a seal of approval to animal-based foods produced under gruesome conditions.)
Change is possible. Lymbery says that in the UK starting in the early 2000s, the relative success of clear consumer-facing labelling around cage-free eggs “caused a big consumer reaction.” Supermarkets and restaurants moved away from using eggs produced by caged hens, and McDonald’s hasn’t used caged eggs in years, even on cheap products. Granted, this isn’t the case worldwide, and cage-free eggs might still have been produced by hens that never set foot outside.
But this example illustrates that more transparent and trustworthy food labels don’t have to cost the earth – even as they protect more of the earth’s creatures.