How Meat Labels Deceive Consumers
Labels on meat products often include images of quaint farms with captivating claims suggesting that the animals involved were treated with care. Unfortunately, these claims are usually nothing more than humanewashing.
In the U.S., the USDA regulates labels used on meat products. While it approves claims regarding animal welfare and sustainability, it does not inspect farms to evaluate production practices. Instead, the USDA relies on information from producers to determine if claims about humane animal treatment and sustainable agriculture are true and appropriate.
To assess the claims approval process, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) obtained government records for 97 approved label claims on 76 meat products from 2013-2021. All claims pertained to animal welfare and environmental protection (e.g., “humanely raised” or “sustainably farmed”). Dairy and egg products were not included, as the authors noted they are not subject to label pre-approval.
The AWI uncovered the following problems with how USDA regulates these claims:
A Lack Of Standards
To gain approval, meat producers are asked to provide an explanation of their claim along with supporting documentation. However, the USDA lacks specific standards or details to assess producers’ submissions and decide whether their evidence justifies the use of the claim.
Fortunately, many advocates and consumers are aware of this. The USDA’s approval process for “humanely raised” claims was significantly opposed by 99% of the public during a recent public comment period. Commenters expressed concerns that the current guidelines are leading to false or misleading claims being approved.
Producers Define Their Own Claims
The authors noted that there are no legal definitions for terms like “animal welfare,” “humane,” or “sustainable.” When applying for labels involving these terms, producers typically come up with their own definitions — and, according to the AWI, these definitions often fall short. For example, producers may claim their animals are humanely-raised because they are antibiotic-free, while ignoring other important animal care necessities. Likewise, claims about sustainability are interpreted in vastly different ways.
Despite these inconsistencies, the AWI notes that the USDA will usually approve claims no matter how they’re defined. The problem is that consumers then see these labels being used on different products and are expected to decide for themselves what they mean.
Claims Without Evidence Or Approval
Of the 97 files requested by AWI, the USDA could not provide any applications for 48 of them; an additional 34 applications lacked relevant or sufficient evidence. In other words, 82 out of the 97 claims (85%) were approved without appropriate evidence to prove they were justified. Many of these cases included manufacturer documentation indicating compliance with only minimal industry standards.
In one instance, a producer provided an affidavit stating its turkeys were raised antibiotic-free, together with documentation that the animals were raised to National Turkey Federation standards, as evidence for a “humanely-raised” label. In 16% of cases, while producers provided a good amount of evidence to justify their label requests, the evidence varied so much that the AWI struggled to determine whether many requests were justified.
AWI’s consumer surveys suggest that 80% of consumers are against the USDA’s practice of allowing producers to use high-welfare claims without having to prove that they exceed conventional industry practices. Consumers also disagree with producers defining their own claims and the lack of third-party assessment in the approval process.
Making The Process Fair And Transparent
Improving transparency and consistency in the meat label certification process has many benefits, including enhanced consumer confidence, promoting responsible practices, and reducing animal suffering.
Based on this report, it’s clear that many meat producers are being approved to use misleading claims without having to provide clear, standardized evidence for them. AWI points out that this flawed system discourages producers from doing more than the bare minimum; likewise, it harms producers who are actually trying to exceed conventional industry standards. Finally, it’s unfair to consumers who see animal welfare or environmental claims on products and make wrong assumptions about them.
To meet consumer expectations, AWI recommends that producers making welfare and sustainability claims should obtain third-party certification that surpasses conventional standards. In addition, to ensure 100% compliance, producers should undergo audits every 15 months. It’s up to animal advocates to push for these changes, and to hold the USDA and producers accountable for them.