When you buy organic meat and dairy products, you probably have certain expectations about how they were produced and how the animals were raised. You may expect that animals on organic farms would be raised with the highest welfare in mind, with lots of space and free access to pasture. You may expect that all organic farmers would be caring and conscientious enough to allow organic animals to exhibit their natural behaviors. You may expect that organic farms would be far superior to industrial farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Sorry to dash your hopes, but all organic farmers do not necessarily raise their animals with even Big Ag’s welfare standards as a base. It might surprise you to know that the United States National Organic Program (NOP) – the federal regulatory framework that governs organic food and farming in the U.S. – has no specific rules on the amount of space that organic farmers are required to give their animals whenever they are housed indoors. This obviously raises questions about animal welfare.
So you choose meat that’s labeled “humanely raised” or “sustainably farmed” because you’re concerned about animal welfare and the impact of farming on the environment. And you’re happy to pay a little bit more for it because you know it’s the right thing to do.
But what if I were to tell you that the government agency tasked with checking to make sure these kinds of label claims are true isn’t doing its job? What if I told you that over 80% of all meat label claims relating to animal welfare and the environment could be being approved without requiring ANY supporting information whatsoever from the food producer?
As I’ve pointed out before, many of the animal welfare and environmental label claims you’ll find on leading products and brands are a load of baloney. At best, they are confusing for the consumer; at worst, they’re downright misleading, and offer no assurance whatsoever that farm animals are raised according to any environmental, welfare or socially responsible standards. But at least we could all rest assured that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) — the agency is responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — was looking out for us. Or so we thought.
The Animal Welfare Institute’s new report, Label Confusion: How “Humane” And “Sustainable” Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Consumers, exposes serious holes in the regulatory approval process for meat and poultry labels that’s supposed to protect consumers. Based on the significant sample taken, the report reveals that FSIS officials seem to be rubber-stamping animal welfare and environment-related food label claims found on millions of U.S. meat and poultry products sold each day. In the vast majority of cases they are simply taking the company’s word. Nothing more.
AWI examined the USDA label approval process for a number of common and sometimes totally misleading animal welfare and environmental claims — including “Animal Friendly,” “Free to Roam,” “Humanely Raised on a Sustainable Farm,” and “Humanely Treated” — used by leading companies. They found that 80 percent of these label claims were approved by USDA without any supporting evidence. In the rare cases where “evidence” was submitted, this amounted to nothing more than a brief, unverified statement by the producer. In only one case was there a third party validation. In other words, if a meat processor wants to label its products using one of these animal welfare or environmental claims, it seems they wouldn’t have to provide FSIS with any form of evidence to substantiate the label claim. How can this be possible?
There are a number of labels that use highly trained auditors to visit farms and confirm the production system being used. Animal Welfare Approved, the certification program I direct, is proud to be one of those — and to also be certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the “certifier’s certifier.” This means that our program and protocol has been thoroughly vetted and deemed a reputable, meaningful certification. For you, the consumer, this means buying food with the AWA logo is your guarantee that the farm is assessed against a comprehensive list of welfare and environmental standards by an experienced and independent auditor at least once a year. And unlike most other farm certifications, we don’t charge farmers a single cent to participate in the program. Because we don’t charge a fee, we can remain completely independent and impartial, resulting in an unrivaled level of integrity and trust. Now compare this to the vague promises you get from the major meat processors — which would you choose?
The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors–many of which are household names and brands. The report suggests that by failing to do its job properly, FSIS is effectively condoning deceptive labeling practices which not only mislead consumers, but threaten the livelihoods of countless higher-welfare farmers who are striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. It’s time we gave them the support they need — and deserve.
If you are as outraged as we are that some meat products are potentially getting a claim approved without any meaningful documentation on file, then check out the rulemaking petition to USDA to fix the mess.
P.S. If you care about the food you eat, and you want to know what’s really behind the most common food label claims and terms, download our free Food Labels Exposed app from the App Store here or Google Play here. Also available in pdf here.