AWI Finds USDA to Be Unreliable Arbiter of Animal Product Label Claims

The use of animal welfare and sustainability claims has increased dramatically over the past decade, as consumers have become more aware of and concerned about the well-being of animals raised for food and about the negative impacts of animal agriculture on the environment. But despite their interest, consumers are confused about the meaning of animal welfare and sustainability claims on labels, the accuracy of which they are typically unable to verify for themselves. The public’s interest in these claims makes them ripe for exploitation by companies attempting to lure the growing number of consumers who seek an alternative to products from factory-farming production systems.

Those who shop for meat and poultry products often see such claims as “humanely raised” or “sustainably farmed” on packaging labels. They naturally assume (as the company behind the label wants them to assume) that these assertions indicate some extra effort was made on behalf of the animals and/or the environment. In the vast majority of cases, however, the shopper has no knowledge of what, if any, action the producer has taken to justify the claim—and no practical access to such information. All too often, there is a wide gap between what consumers believe they are purchasing and the reality. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the authority to deny the use of labels when they are believed to be false or misleading. But USDA does not go onto farms to evaluate animal raising or environmental practices. Rather, the department relies on information supplied by producers to determine whether claims related to humane animal treatment and sustainable agricultural practices are accurate and appropriate for use on a label.

While USDA regularly approves claims related to animal welfare, no legal definitions exist for the terms “animal welfare,” “humane,” or “animal care.” Moreover, USDA has never officially acknowledged any particular set of animal standards as representing acceptable supporting evidence for the use of welfare-related claims. The same is true for environmental claims—no official definition exists for “sustainable,” and no acceptable standards have been identified.

So how does USDA make its decisions? Although USDA has no definitions for animal welfare and sustainability claims, it has developed labeling guidance to assist in the approval of these claims. The guidance requires that producers submit supporting documentation, which can include affidavits and testimonials, operational protocols, feed formulas, and certificates.

AWI set about to evaluate USDA’s process for approving label claims related to animal welfare and environmental stewardship—submitting more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests covering a total of 25 claims appearing on the labels of 19 meat and poultry products. The review revealed that the government is regularly approving the use of animal welfare and environmental claims on labels, with little or no evidence documenting the accuracy of such claims. We also found that the current label approval process: 1) is inconsistent and lacks transparency, 2) does not meet consumer expectations, 3) leads to misleading and deceptive labeling, and 4) harms farmers who make accurate claims on their product labels.

In response to AWI’s requests, USDA stated that it was unable to locate any documents for 20 of the 25 claims. This suggests USDA did not require producers to submit a single piece of supporting evidence prior to it issuing an approval for use of these claims.

USDA provided very limited documentation for the other five claims. For the claim “humanely raised on sustainable family farms,” approved for use on one turkey producer’s products, supporting documentation consisted of an affidavit containing only two sentences pertaining to the claim, with one of the sentences merely repeating the claim. A mere two sentences—at least one of which provided no additional information—were sufficient for USDA to determine that this producer deserved to use a high-value claim related to both animal welfare and environmental stewardship.

Another of the five claims was approved based on an overview of the animal care protocol of just one of the company’s many suppliers. In another case, the claim “raised on family farms using sustainable agricultural practices” was approved on the basis that “many” (but apparently not all) of the company’s suppliers engage in a few practices related to environmental stewardship.

AWI challenged use of one “humanely raised” claim before the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau, arguing that use of the claim by a particular producer was misleading and deceptive. AWI’s complaint was based on the fact that the producer raises animals under conventional industry standards, and most consumers expect products with such a claim to have come from animals raised to a higher standard. While NAD agreed that removal of the claim “was necessary and appropriate,” USDA continues to allow the claim.

As in the above case, USDA routinely approves the use of high-value claims, such as “humanely raised,” on products from animals raised under conventional industry standards. For example, USDA regularly approves use of the claim by poultry producers that operate under the woefully inadequate standards of the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation. Yet, a 2013 public opinion survey commissioned by AWI found that 88 percent of frequent meat and poultry shoppers believed that producers should not be allowed to use the claim “humanely raised” unless they actually exceed minimum industry animal care standards.

Consumers disagree with other aspects of USDA’s label approval process for animal welfare and environmental claims as well. A large majority of consumers who frequently purchase meat or poultry products say the government should require producers to prove any claims such as “humanely raised” or “sustainably farmed” that they want to put on their product labels. And consumers expect more than a brief affidavit or testimonial to be offered as proof.

It’s not surprising that a majority of consumers who frequently purchase meat or poultry don’t feel confident that USDA verifies label claims, and a large majority would like to see claims such as “humanely raised” and “sustainably farmed” verified by an independent third party.

Most producers don’t make their standards available to the public, and many even refuse to provide them upon request. This means the veracity of label claims is known only to the producers themselves, who have a financial interest in promoting their products in the most marketable manner possible.

Lack of on-site verification (by USDA or others) of label claims is a particular problem for holistic claims like those related to animal welfare and environmental sustainability, because these claims address multiple aspects of production. Some producers seek to assure consumers that their products are properly labeled and meet a certain standard by participating in a third-party certification program. Producers who seek third-party certification typically incur a variety of fees associated with the certification. These producers also incur higher costs associated with maintaining systems that go beyond conventional production standards in terms of animal welfare and environmental stewardship.

USDA is currently allowing producers to make claims to consumers that represent the equivalent message of an independent third-party certification. Producers that make animal welfare and/or environmental claims, but do not adhere to higher standards and are not independently certified, are able to avoid both the cost of certification and better production, while still reaping the benefits in market value. Allowing the use of these claims without proper verification promotes unfair marketing practices and disadvantages farmers who provide verification of the claims made on their products. In an October 2013 survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of AWI , nearly 90 percent of respondents supported a requirement that animal welfare and environmental stewardship label claims be backed by third-party certification.

Third-party certifiers provide meaningful, verifiable standards. They confirm compliance with the standards—first on the farm and, if appropriate, during transport and/or at slaughter. Third-party program standards are typically available online for all interested parties to review, thus providing transparency. The programs are independent of the companies they are certifying, and they regularly review and revise their standards.

USDA must change its current label approval process to prevent misleading and deceptive labeling and promote a fair market for farmers who go the extra mile. This can be accomplished by USDA approving label claims only after certification has been obtained from an independent third party that audits on-site practices pertaining to the claim and has standards that exceed conventional industry standards in a meaningful way. USDA must stop facilitating false advertising and instead use its authority to ensure that consumers who wish to support better practices may do so in confidence.