Welfare Labels Are Confusing U.S. Consumers
Providing labels on animal products to indicate higher welfare standards is one way to help consumers make more informed purchasing choices. In turn, it can increase demand for “high welfare” products and incentivize the animal agriculture industry to increase welfare standards across the board. However, a new report from Farm Forward suggests that a significant minority of U.S. consumers are confused about what standards welfare labels guarantee, calling into question the effectiveness of these schemes.
The report is based on an online survey of 1,219 U.S. consumers. It tested consumer beliefs about three popular welfare labels: Global Animal Partnership (GAP), American Humane Certified (AHC), and One Health Certified (OHC). In Farm Forward’s view, none of these schemes guarantees much, if anything, above standard U.S. industry practice. They describe AHC as a third-party label that has the animal agriculture’s interests at heart and OHC as an industry label intended solely to ease consumers’ concerns about current industry practices. While GAP has traditionally been viewed as more progressive, Farm Forward claims that this label bows to industry interests and allows problematic practices such as animal mutilations.
The survey found that many U.S. consumers wrongly believe that these three labels guarantee a number of high welfare practices. About a third of consumers thought that the labels guarantee animals are raised on pasture (GAP: 33% AHC: 32% OHC: 30%) and slightly more consumers believed that animals are raised with constant access to the outdoors (GAP: 39% AHC: 38% OHC: 37%). Around two out of five consumers thought the labels also rule out genetic modification (GAP: 39% AHC: 38% OHC: 45%), mutilation of animals (GAP: 40% AHC: 41% OHC: 42%), and provide positive environmental guarantees (GAP: 40% AHC: 40% OHC: 42%). However, none of the labels guarantees any of these standards.
The survey also asked consumers what they thought the phrase “cage-free” means and found that there was significant confusion. 38% of respondents thought it meant the birds spend their lives on pasture while 47% believed birds have constant access to the outdoors. Some consumers thought that the term “cage-free” rules out industry practices such as antibiotic use (24%), debeaking (27%), and the culling of day-old chicks (18%), although this isn’t the case for typical cage-free production.
Even more troubling is the finding that these misconceptions appear to be impacting consumers’ purchasing choices. The survey found that those who had purchased a product stamped with one of the three welfare labels were around 20% more likely to falsely believe the label guaranteed a given welfare standard. This indicates that at least some consumers are changing their purchasing decisions based on mistaken beliefs about what welfare labels indicate.
In general, consumers appear unable to differentiate between welfare labels. The GAP label has tiers ranging up to Step 5+, which does guarantee significantly improved welfare over industry common practices. However, consumers were unable to differentiate between Step 5+ products and Step 1 products, which are barely different from conventional factory farming. In other words, producers can do the bare minimum to access the GAP label and reap the benefits of the price premium for producing “high welfare” products without the additional costs required to meet the more exacting standards of Step 5+. Furthermore, alternative schemes that do guarantee higher welfare may struggle to differentiate themselves from industry schemes in the mind of the consumer, thus potentially limiting their effectiveness.
These findings suggest that welfare labels are poorly understood by at least a sizable portion of the public. Moreover, it’s troubling to see that consumers may be making purchasing choices based on these misunderstandings. If this is true, then animal advocates should focus on educating consumers about the truth behind animal welfare labels. Organizations could also push the government to enact stronger policies around the use of labels to ensure standardization and transparency, thus safeguarding both animals and consumers. Finally, large retail chains that carry misleading labels should be held accountable for potentially confusing consumers.