Label Me (Please!) – Attitudes Toward Animal Product Labels
While most U.S. adults feel that the food supply is generally safe, a majority also has concerns over food safety. According to a survey by Deloitte, 40% of consumers feel they are not provided adequate information about their food and want additional information. One way to accommodate this is to add labels to food. Survey research reveals that consumers have strong preferences for labels that denote country of origin, if milk is hormone-free, and if food is “natural.”
A survey by Ipsos and McClatchy finds that 80% of U.S. adults’ food safety concerns are related to imported foods and the Hartman Group found that 75% of U.S. consumers believe that country of origin labeling (COOL) should be mandatory. The USDA does require this labeling on a number of products, including: muscle cuts and ground versions of beef, chicken, lamb, pork, goat, and chicken; fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities; peanuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng. However, government labeling is less in line with consumer demands in other areas.
A 2007 poll sponsored by Food & Water Watch reveals that 80% of U.S. adults think that milk produced by cows that are not treated with the growth hormone rGBH, which increases the production of milk that one cow can produce, should be allowed to be labeled as “rGBH free.” Even though consumers prefer this label, the FDA does not require the labeling of dairy from cows treated with bovine growth hormones, nor does it allow the labeling of a product as not treated with a bovine growth hormone.
An additional issue is that what labels mean often does not align with what consumers think they should mean. A recent survey sponsored by Consumer Reports found that over 80% of U.S. consumers expected meat products labeled “natural” should be free of chemicals, drugs, additives, and artificial colors. There was also the expectation that the animals from whom “natural” meat comes, should be raised in a natural environment. To some degree consumer expectations are met; the USDA’s “natural” label means that there are no artificial ingredients, added colors and processing is minimal. However, there is no link between this label and the way that animals live and are treated before they are slaughtered for their meat.
In fact, there are very few labels that denote the way that animals who are killed for food are treated and the labels that do exist are often very broad. For example, the USDA requires that anything labeled “Free Range” or “Free Roaming” come from a bird that, when alive, was allowed access to the outdoors. “Access” is a term that has been loosely defined such that it can be adhered to by simply adding a small doorway from the typical factory-farming shed leading into a small yard, which may not be able to simultaneously accommodate all of the birds. As such, the image of birds roaming free on a field enjoying natural behaviors such as perching, taking dust baths, running, and socializing in small groups is rarely actually what “free range” birds experience.
Nongovernmental organizations concerned with the welfare of animals used for food have tried to ameliorate this disparity by developing labels with higher standards. There are a number of these third party labels in the U.S., including programs such as “Certified Humane” and “Animal Welfare Approved,” that strive to establish higher standards (relative to the government) for the treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food. These labels are voluntary; farmers and manufactures have to apply to use them and submit to periodic audits.