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For decades the American public has been subjected to rampant greenwashing, from ads about “clean coal” to “green” labels on toilet paper made from clear-cut forests. Now Farm Forward is peeling back the labels on meat, dairy, and egg packages to reveal a dangerous new trend that is growing in scope and sophistication within our food supply: humanewashing.
Instead, these labels are often industry-driven humanewashing tools: efforts to market animal products to conscientious consumers through deceptive packaging and labeling, promoting the illusion of animal well-being while concealing the extent of animals’ illness and suffering.
While the most basic of these tactics take the form of “all-natural” or “free range” labels, even independent welfare certifications have become embroiled in the dirty business of humanewashing. In our report “The Dirt on Humanewashing”, published on the heels of us resigning in protest from the board of the nation’s largest independent welfare certification, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), Farm Forward reveals that by putting their stamp of approval on factory-farmed products, certifications, too, are deceiving shoppers and betraying the animals whose welfare they are charged with overseeing.
With an ever-expanding array of product labels and marketing confronting shoppers, it’s hard to know who and what to trust—but we know what we want the labels to mean: a 2021 Farm Forward survey found that 45 percent of Americans believe that all high welfare certifications need to ensure that animals are raised continuously on pasture, and more than half felt that the “cage-free” label should mean that chickens live on pasture. In reality, though, the smiling cows and hens on grocery store shelves belie the harsh reality for 99 percent of farmed animals: factory farming.1 Here are what common “humane” and “healthy” claims mean for animals:
Nothing. This term only refers to post-slaughter ingredients and additives.
An unregulated term that does not ensure higher welfare standards.
The USDA’s National Organic Program does have specific standards that must be met for certification; however, the welfare components are weak. Animals should be given enough space to accommodate natural behaviors and provided outdoor access, but space requirements are not clearly spelled out, and animals generally have only slightly more room than on conventional farms. Animals cannot be given hormones or unnecessary antibiotics and must be fed an organic diet.
No hormones given to dairy cows, but no requirements for welfare. No meaning for chicken, eggs, or pork, as hormones are already prohibited in these industries.
This term applies to virtually all chickens used for meat, who are raised indoors on factory farms, as cages are not used by the broiler industry. For egg-laying hens, cages are replaced with crowded indoor aviaries. No outdoor access is required.
Birds must be given access to the outdoors, but actual outside time varies widely. Many birds on crowded farms may never use the small outdoor opening provided. This claim gives consumers no assurance that animals actually go outside.
What should shoppers make of all those certification seals and check marks that are on products? Certifications fall into three categories:
Some of the most basic and least-considered welfare provisions, like those listed in the chart below, are simply incompatible with factory farming and are often left unresolved by even the most stringent certifications.5 The reality is that the certified “better” meat dominating grocery shelves is still cruel and overwhelmingly derived from genetically modified, unhealthy animals.
Labels paint a rosy picture of our food system, obfuscating animal suffering as well as rampant drug use to keep animals alive in sickening conditions that would otherwise kill them. Farm Forward’s consumer survey revealed that 25 percent of Americans believe that an “antibiotic-free” label indicates that the animal was raised on pasture—despite the claim having no bearing on welfare.
In 2022, rigorous testing by Farm Forward found that “antibiotic-free” labels aren’t even delivering on their explicit promise. A sample of GAP Animal Welfare Certified™ and Organic Certified beef purchased at Whole Foods tested positive for monensin, an antibiotic used to promote growth that is banned by both programs. These results were corroborated by a peer-reviewed study in Science that found that over a quarter of GAP-certified cattle in their sample came from feedlots that had residues of medically important antibiotics.
Whole Foods and GAP have done nothing to ensure that animals treated with antibiotics don’t end up on store shelves. And even if Whole Foods did test its products, that wouldn’t eliminate the reason for widespread drug use in the first place: factory farming. If we can’t trust a supposed leader like Whole Foods, who can we trust to protect animals and consumers? Whole Foods must take factory farming off its shelves if it can’t live up to its promises.
Humanewashing fools us into paying higher prices for factory farmed products. So how can you shop according to your conscience? Our label guide helps shoppers identify the rare products that meet a minimum standard most of us expect: animals free to roam on pasture. However, for many shoppers, choosing to center plants on their plates is easier than decoding the sea of deceptive labels at the grocery store to find the few products that align with their values.
You can also make a difference by holding supermarkets and meat companies accountable. Supermarkets stock what their customers demand, so your voice matters.
Join the movement for truth in labeling. Stay up to date on the latest humanewashing news.
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April 9, 2022
Farm Forward calculation based on U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 Census of Agriculture, June 2014.
American Humane Certified. 2020. “Science-Based Standards.” http://humaneheartland.org/our-standards/.
Certified Humane. 2020. “Our Standards.” https://certifiedhumane.org/our-standards/.
Global Animal Partnership. 2020. “Our Standards.” https://globalanimalpartnership.org/standards/.
One independent certification, A Greener World’s (AGW’s) Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), stands out as anomalous: it is both the smallest and the most rigorous. It is the only certification that avoids the particularly disturbing humanewashing involved in certifying as humane products from animals raised in intensive confinement. However, AWA, too, struggles with the reality that other forms of cruelty, such as the forced separation of calves and mother cows before natural weaning or the use of genetic lines of chickens prone to disease and chronic pain, are so pervasive in modern animal agriculture that even it cannot insist that these cruelties be banned and continue to operate. Further, AWA’s high standards and commitment to protect smaller independent farmers have precluded its ability to scale to the level of other certifications like GAP. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which the meat, poultry, dairy, and egg companies that dominate the industry today would adopt AWA standards at scale with options like AHC, Certified Humane, or GAP available. Thus, while AWA could partially be viewed as an exception to the humanewashing rule, its inability to achieve market scale is another datum illustrating the failure of animal welfare certification.