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How USDA Rubber-Stamps 'Humane' and 'Sustainable' Food Claims

When a shopper spends their hard-earned money on meat that is labeled "humanely raised" or "sustainably farmed," it's not unreasonable for them to assume that someone has validated the truthfulness of the claim. In fact, USDA is supposed to be doing it.
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When a shopper spends their hard-earned money on meat that is labeled "humanely raised" or "sustainably farmed," it's not unreasonable for them to assume that someone has validated the truthfulness of the claim. In fact, USDA is supposed to be doing it.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is charged with ensuring the legitimacy of any such labeling claims. According to the FSIS website, the agency is responsible for "ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products." The FSIS website even states that "Knowing the meaning of labeling terms can make purchasing of meat and poultry products less confusing." Helpful, reassuring words--if they were true.

Well, a damning new report from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) exposes the complete lack of government oversight and verification of animal welfare and environmental claims used on millions of meat and poultry packages sold in the United States. For the vast majority of label claims investigated by AWI, the government agency responsible for ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products is just taking the company's word for it.

AWI's report--"Label Confusion: How 'Humane' And 'Sustainable' Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Consumers"--reveals that FSIS officials are rubber-stamping meat label claims relating to animal welfare and the environment without requiring ANY supporting evidence from the food producer.

Over the past three years, AWI researched the USDA label approval process for a total of 25 key animal welfare and environmental claims, such as "humanely raised" and "sustainably farmed," found on meat and poultry packaging sold by popular "natural" companies such as Applegate Farms, Crescent Foods, Empire Kosher, FreeBird, Kroger's Simple Truth store brand, A&P's Mid-Atlantic Country Farms store brand, Niman Ranch, Petaluma Poultry, and Plainville Farms.

What AWI found is that only 2 of the 25 label claims approved by USDA were substantiated by anything more than a brief, unverified statement by the producer. And 80 percent of the label claims were backed by no supporting evidence whatsoever--or at least none that USDA could produce in response to AWI's request. Let's get this straight: if a meat producer wants to label its meat products using one or more of the following claims, they wouldn't have to provide FSIS with anything to substantiate the claim:

• "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"

Even the label approvals that were based on producer affidavits are suspect. It's been suggested that buying food from a company that relies on producer affidavits is a bit like buying a used car based on the salesperson's assurances that the car had a clean history and operated smoothly. Would you accept that the car had never been wrecked without question? Or would you want to get a mechanic's (independent third party) report on the safety and condition of the car before you drive it away?

It's not surprising that nearly 90 percent of consumers responding to a 2013 public opinion survey felt that producers should have to prove any claims like "humanely raised" and "sustainably farmed" on product labels, and most thought a brief statement from a producer shouldn't qualify as proof. Unfortunately, under the current government label approval process, no one, including USDA itself, learns which claims are being appropriately used and which ones aren't.

And it seems, the bigger the claim, the less the government does to verify its accuracy. USDA has no definition for holistic animal welfare and environmental claims like "humanely raised" and "sustainably farmed." These are complex, multi-faceted concepts that can't be explained in a mere sentence or two. Animal welfare encompasses health care practices, feeding regimes, flooring and bedding, lighting, space allowances, handling methods, and much more. Likewise, the concept of sustainability can apply to many aspects of the food chain--from farming, transportation, processing, and retailing to post-purchase actions including storage, preparation, consumption, and disposal.

If you ask USDA how it approves claims such as these, the response is "based on other claims on the label." This not only doesn't make any sense, it's not what USDA is doing. AWI's research found that "humane" and "sustainable" claims were being approved even when there were no other related claims on the label, and even when no evidence was provided regarding the claim in question.

Many consumers now have a profound feeling that something is very wrong indeed with the way we farm and what we're eating. As consumers become more aware of and concerned about how we're treating animals and the environment, these claims are in ever greater demand. Despite their interest, though, consumers are confused about what the claims actually mean, and they're unable to verify the accuracy for themselves.

So if USDA isn't doing its job, what to do? AWI is calling on USDA to change its current label approval process to prevent misleading and deceptive labeling by requiring that all animal welfare and environmental claims be verified by an independent third party. You can express your concern about USDA's label approval process by asking the agency to grant AWI's request.

In the meantime, there's something else that conscientious consumers can do. They can look for products whose label includes an animal welfare or environmental claim that is accompanied by a statement or logo indicating an independent third party verified the claim. And they can reject any product that lacks this assurance--because chances are, no one in the government ever checked to see if the claim was really true.

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