US Senators Urge USDA to Address Misleading Food Label Claims

A pig.
Photo by Michael Hansen

Lawmakers cite new research from AWI, revealing that the vast majority of nearly 100 animal raising claims on meat and poultry products lack meaningful substantiation

Washington, DC—US Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) are urging the US Department of Agriculture to fulfill its obligation to protect the public from misleading food labels, citing a recent Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) report indicating that 85% of analyzed animal welfare claims on meat and poultry products lacked adequate substantiation.

In a letter delivered today to Sandra Eskin, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the lawmakers expressed concern about the agency’s process for evaluating animal-raising claims, such as “humanely raised” and “sustainably raised,” and questioned whether the FSIS plans to strengthen its documentation requirements to “ensure standard guidelines across the industry.”

“Meat labeled with sustainability and animal-raising claims represents one of the fastest-growing segments of the meat industry, and without clear labels, consumers are robbed of their ability to purchase in accordance with their values,” the senators stated. “The USDA has an obligation to ensure consumers have the information necessary to make informed choices about the products they purchase and that hardworking farmers and producers are able to compete on a level playing field.”

The USDA has the authority to deny companies the use of labels believed to be false or misleading under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act. However, AWI’s review of the USDA’s label approval files over the past decade (obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests) found that higher-welfare labels for meat and poultry have proliferated in the marketplace without USDA approval—or with only marginal evidence to support these claims.

Most consumers disagree with the USDA’s practice of allowing conventional producers to define these claims themselves without requiring on-farm evaluation by either the government or an independent third party, according to multiple national surveys commissioned by AWI.

“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,” Dena Jones, director of AWI’s farmed animal program, said. “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.”

Because producers are free to define promotional terms used on packaging any way they choose, the same claim can have different meanings on different packages. A producer, for example, might define “humanely raised” to mean the animals were raised on a diet that was vegetarian or free of antibiotics—actions that say little about the animals’ overall welfare.

In its latest analysis, AWI reviewed 97 label claims dating to 2013. For nearly half the claims (48), the USDA was unable to provide any application submitted by the producer, suggesting a significant percentage of meat products in the marketplace may contain unapproved claims. For the remaining claims, most producers provided minimal documentation, such as an affidavit or operational protocol indicating compliance with only basic industry animal care standards.

“The USDA’s failure to meaningfully regulate animal raising claims like ‘humanely raised’ and ‘raised without antibiotics’ contributes to consumer confusion and humanewashing,” said Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward. “The public broadly supports more regulation of meat labeling and AWI’s findings illustrate the urgent need for the USDA to take action to protect the public and ensure a fair marketplace for higher-welfare farmers.”

Over the years, AWI has used its extensive research on deceptive animal raising claims to submit rulemaking petitions to the USDA and challenge producers before the Federal Trade Commission and the BBB National Programs National Advertising Division (NAD). 

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to promote more competition in the American economy, directing the USDA to address consolidation in the agricultural sector that hurts small farmers. AWI, along with other environmental and animal protection organizations, has urged the USDA to address its process for approving animal raising claims as part of Biden’s initiative to promote a more fair and open marketplace.

AWI included several recommendations in its report. Among them:

  • The USDA should require producers using such claims to obtain third-party certification that they adhere to standards that exceed conventional production practices.
  • Producers should also be required to comply with all of the certification’s standards and be audited by the certifier at least every 15 months.

To help consumers navigate deceptive food labels, AWI’s A Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare provides important information about what to look for and what to avoid in the marketplace.

Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

The Animal Welfare Institute ( is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.