A federal agency tasked with nixing misleading marketing claims is allowing the meat industry to use “humane” and sustainability labels without actually improving conditions for their animals or the planet, a new report from nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) revealed.

Companies advertising meat and poultry products as any number of labels — including “humanely raised,” “welfare certified”, or “environmentally friendly” — are making up their own definitions of what those terms mean and are getting the stamp of approval from the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which reportedly isn’t doing enough to verify the claims, according to the AWI report.

It’s complex terrain to navigate, given that — despite consumer perceptions — words like “humane” have no legal definition.

As the system currently is supposed to work, producers define for themselves what makes something “sustainable” or “humane” and submit an application to the FSIS, detailing why they feel their products qualify for the label.

The FSIS has authority to deny misleading or false claims. But the report from AWI revealed that inspectors allegedly were granting their stamp of approval to companies based solely on largely unverified information submitted by the producers in their applications.

The report also found that nearly half of the products using labels indicating higher animal welfare standards reportedly hadn’t even gone through that process.

“Consumers are inundated with compelling images, claims, taglines, and ‘certifications’ assuring them that these products are environmentally friendly and the animals involved were well cared for,” said AWI’s Farmed Animal Director Dena Jones. “In fact, the USDA allows producers to define claims however they see fit and sail through the approval process instead of promoting meaningful, measurable standards.”

AWI investigated 97 food labeling claims across 76 different meat and poultry products  — including labels like “sustainable,” “ethically raised,” “humane,” or “stress-free environment” — and found that 85 percent had no or minimal evidence to support their claims.

Instead, they found numerous instances of companies that claimed their products were “humane” but which kept their farmed animals in conditions that met the agriculture industry’s bare minimum welfare standards. 

AWI’s investigators also found that some companies using the “humane” label were using criteria that had little or nothing to do with animals’ welfare, such as feeding the animals a vegetarian diet without otherwise addressing other critically important areas, such as space allowance, lighting, veterinary care, or access to range land or exercise areas.

The deceptive labels have led to consumer confusion and “humanewashing” — a term that refers to marketing that makes consumers believe the animals are being raised in good conditions when they aren’t actually, AWI said.

Multiple national surveys commissioned by the organization show that a majority of consumers polled disagree with the current USDA practice of allowing producers to self-define claims, rather than adhere to meaningful, measurable standards.

As such, the nonprofit has been challenging the agency — for years — to strengthen protections for animals by creating standardized definitions and a more stringent approval or refusal process.

And their years-long effort is finally starting to lead to change.

Senators Demand Action, USDA Announces Changes

In response to AWI’s report, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter to the FSIS urging the department to do more to protect consumers from misleading food labels.

“The USDA has an obligation to ensure consumers have the information necessary to make informed choices about the products they purchase,” the legislators wrote in March. “Without clear labels, consumers are robbed of their ability to purchase in accordance with their values.”

Then, in June, the USDA announced it was launching a multi-step effort to strengthen the substantiation of animal-raising claims. In particular, the agency said it would look at claims that farmed animals were “raised without antibiotics” and may require lab tests in the future, would strongly encourage the use of third-party certification programs, and would use those actions to guide potential rulemaking decisions.

“Consumers should be able to trust that the label claims they see on products bearing the USDA mark of inspection are truthful and accurate,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “USDA is taking action today to ensure the integrity of animal-raising claims.”

Jones, AWI’s farm animal program director, welcomed the announcement but said that more was still needed.

“While we appreciate the actions announced today, there is more that FSIS must do to strengthen the substantiation of animal-raising claims,” Jones said. “For example, in 2016, AWI petitioned the agency to clarify the ‘free range’ claim. Earlier this year, we commented in support of another petition asking the FSIS to better differentiate between ‘free range’ and ‘pasture raised’ claims.”

Jones said the FSIS should move quickly to respond to these petitions and resolve ongoing confusion and misuse of these claims.

Our View: There Is No Humane Way To Eat Animals

Lady Freethinker would like to remind our readers that the only truly humane choice for animals is to not eat them.

The current welfare standards for farmed animals — regardless of certification label — still allow mother animals to be exploited and then separated from their babies, and for cows, birds, and pigs to undergo painful procedures — including debeaking, debudding, and tail docking — without any anesthesiaAnimals will continue to be slaughtered at a fraction of their natural lifespans — while they are still babies — regardless of the label slapped on the products you see at grocery stores.

Going vegan can be fun, healthy, and life-changing! There are many delicious and affordable plant-based options hitting supermarket shelves every single day, and we encourage you to give them a try today!