The Case Against Humane Food Labels
Most of us are familiar with the term “greenwashing.” It describes the process of creating an environmentally friendly halo on a product that doesn’t deserve it. The term “humanewashing” follows in the same vein. It describes practices that conceal animal suffering under a veneer of animal welfare-friendly practices. A new report from Farm Forward argues that humane product labeling has become little more than humanewashing. It contends that rather than informing consumers, about the state of animal agriculture, these labels have instead become deceptive marketing ploys.
Previous surveys show that consumers care about the well-being of animals used for food. They want animals raised in cage-free, quality living spaces. They desire humane slaughter, And they are willing to pay more for animal products that meet these criteria. Humane labeling was created to communicate how the animals lived and died. Increasingly knowledgeable consumers would demand ever-better living conditions. As circumstances improved, standards could be ratcheted up. Producers would then have to meet this higher bar to earn coveted certifications. Thus, over time, the worst abuses of the factory farming system would disappear.
To see if labeling schemes are working as intended, this study looked at three types of certifying entities that promote seven different labels. It evaluated how well each program works to reduce animal suffering and whether consumers should feel reassured by their claims.
- United Egg Producers Certified (UEP) – This national marketing cooperative represents about 90% of eggs in the United States. UEP standards largely codify existing industry practices that allow for caged hens and routine debeaking.
- Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) – This program is administered by the National Milk Producers Federation. Standards do not require pasture for cows and allow calves to be removed from their mothers soon after birth and confined in crates.
- American Humane Certified (AHC) – This program is sponsored by the group American Humane (AH). It is the largest certification program in the world with one billion animals under its umbrella. Fees charged to producers for certification make up a significant portion of AH’s revenue. Third parties conduct welfare audits, but standards allow practices little better than typical confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s): confinement crates for sows, cages for chickens, and no limits on transportation times for cows are all permitted. AHC standards are the lowest of any third-party certification scheme.
- One Health Certified (OHC) – This program was founded by poultry producer Mountaire Farms and is administered by the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education (NAMRRE). The name attempts to sow confusion with similarly named efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s designed to convey to consumers that the program balances sustainability and human health with animal welfare. Members pay $15,000 annually to join and include academic and governmental institutions, animal product trade groups, and retailers. Producers pay $7,500 each year for certification. OHC standards allow almost indiscriminate use of antibiotics but don’t require the conditions that lead to antibiotic use to be corrected. Its welfare standards largely conform to current industry practices.
- Certified Humane (CH) – The nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) operates this program. It has more impact on animal welfare because it maintains a greater distance from the agriculture industry. Standards require some environmental enrichment and prohibit debeaking, tail docking in pigs, tethering of calves and cages for hens. Higher certification levels also require animals to be raised on pasture with appropriate exercise and socialization.
- Global Animal Partnership (GAP) – Like CH, GAP also does more to improve animal lives by distancing itself from the industry. Welfare standards are similar to CH, and there are also multiple levels of certification. The highest certification levels do provide significant welfare improvement.
- Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) – This is the smallest and most rigorous certification created by the nonprofit A Greener World (AGW). Grants and donations provide most of AGW’s funding, so it can maintain independence from agricultural producers. It is the only program with standards that guarantee that animals are raised for their entire lives on pasture. However, it still certifies farmers who raise chickens from genetic lines that cause pain and debilitation, though it restricts the permissible growth rate. It also allows the separation of cows and calves prior to natural weaning and killing of male chicks.
Overall, the results of the study suggest that even certifications overseen by independent organizations deceive consumer to some degree. No certification addresses the issues of genetic modification that leads to pain and disease, natural weaning of dairy cows, or culling of newborn male chicks. Indeed, several humane labels are granted to products from animals raised in conditions little better than factory farms. This widespread deception obscures the need for change from consumers. It also lessens external pressure on producers, thus reducing the motivation for change. Corporations can appear to cooperate with consumers and animal advocates while doing little to change their practices.
Humane certifications allow producers to promote the illusion of animal well-being while hiding the continued suffering of farm animals. As this report makes clear, humane certification is still woefully inadequate. Animal advocates will find a wealth of actionable information they can use to direct their efforts. The report also shows why we must restrict industry influence over certification processes. Consumers want humane treatment for animals. Our efforts can help to pull back the curtain and expose humanewashing for the fraud it is.