Humanewashing—the collection of marketing tools employed by meat companies that lead to widespread and foundational misunderstandings about animal welfare in animal agriculture—is an existential threat to efforts to move beyond factory farming. For the last few years, Farm Forward has commissioned large-scale surveys of American residents focused on consumer deception and its consequences. Consistently, the surveys’ results show that the expectations that consumers have about what certain labels signify—whether it be about animal welfare, antibiotic use, or environmental sustainability—are not aligned with the facts on the ground.
This year, we partnered with the research firm Data for Progress to test some of our hypotheses about consumer understandings of everything from “pasture raised” to Global Animal Partnership’s “Animal Welfare Certified” label. The results of our 1,100-person survey of American adults indicate that consumers have baseline expectations for meat companies and retailers that aren’t being met, and that companies risk eroding the trust of their consumers if they continue to humanewash.
To get a deeper understanding of how Americans view animal product labels, we tested the appeal of different animal raising claims and certifications, including but not limited to “humanely raised,” “antibiotic free,” and “pasture raised.” Americans, by and large, viewed such labels favorably, often with at least 3 in 4 viewing them positively. This would be a fine result if such labels actually meant what they claim to; instead, they often lack meaningful substantiation and regulation. Third-party animal welfare labels that are also deeply flawed, like Animal Welfare Certified and One Health Certified, were perceived less favorably (likely due to less familiarity) but were still viewed positively by around 50 percent of American adults.
For another question, respondents were presented with an image of an actual Animal Welfare Certified (GAP Step 2) poultry farm: half said that the image matched their expectations either “not very well” (30 percent) or “not at all” (20 percent). This result aligns with the conclusion from our 2021 survey that significant numbers of consumers were incorrect about what labels like “cage-free” and American Humane Certified actually mean. For example, in that survey, nearly 40 percent of respondents thought that a cage-free label signifies that a chicken was raised continuously on pasture; it signifies nothing close to that.
These results exemplify one of the most common manifestations of humanewashing: the tendency of the reality behind animal welfare labels to clash sharply with consumer expectations.
Meat companies and grocery stores should take note of these results. We also directly tested levels of trust in response to the humanewashing phenomena: After reading the definition of humanewashing, a majority of adults (57 percent) said that learning that a company engaged in humanewashing would make them much or somewhat less likely to support their brand. Misleading consumers might work for a time, but it is unlikely to continue to succeed as consumers become more aware of standard industry factory farm practices.
We also thought it was important to test a specific, identifiable instance of humanewashing: Whole Foods’ “raised without antibiotics” marketing, the subject of a class action lawsuit. After learning that beef sold at Whole Foods and marketed as “raised without antibiotics,” Animal Welfare Certified and USDA Organic tested positive for an antibiotic, 71 percent of respondents said it would make them lose trust in their grocery store if they were discovered to be selling products treated with antibiotic drugs marketed as “raised without antibiotics.”
After being exposed throughout the survey to information about misleading labeling, respondents became increasingly skeptical about the accuracy of animal product labels with regard to their animal welfare claims; the percentage of respondents who were skeptical of these labels—and thought they were often misleading—sharply increased from 49 percent at the beginning of the survey to 65 percent by its end. Put another way, when consumers learn more about what meat labeling and marketing actually mean, they are less supportive of companies that humanewash. Consumer distrust may create pressure advocates can use to push companies to better meet consumer expectations.
Transparency and Accountability
As mentioned above, the USDA requires little, if any, verification or substantiation of the animal-raising claims it approves for use. (The USDA’s recent move to rethink labeling guidelines is a step in the right direction). Currently, someone purchasing a meat product—say, one labeled “raised without antibiotics”—can never be certain that this is actually the case.
Accordingly, we also wanted to test Americans’ support for increased accountability in the meat industry. An overwhelming majority would support stronger regulations on this front: 88 percent of respondents said that it is either very important (57 percent) or somewhat important (31 percent) for companies to provide independently verified information about how they treat animals. Additionally, 81 percent of Americans support increasing the rigor of regulations for animal product labeling; the survey also found that there is widespread support for increasing the transparency and rigor of antibiotic labeling on meat products in particular, with 87 percent of Americans in favor. These popular changes would likely both reduce animal suffering and weaken the profitability and stability of the factory farm model, which relies on weak regulation.
Our partnership with Data for Progress has provided further evidence for something we’ve suspected for a while: there is a significant disconnect between consumer expectations and the reality of animal treatment in the meat industry. Beyond that, our results also showed that the revelation of this deception erodes the consumers’ trust in some of their favored grocery stores. This fact, alongside widespread support for stronger transparency and accountability within the meat industry, should be a wake-up call for retailers and meat producers that humanewashing can backfire and damage consumer trust in not only products but in the producers and retailers themselves.
Farm Forward’s online survey was conducted by Data For Progress from June 23 to 25, 2023. The total sample size was 1,149 U.S. adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18+).