Major corporations cash in on so-called “humane” labels like “antibiotic free”, “natural”, and “organic”, even though their corresponding husbandry practices almost never match consumers’ expectations for animal welfare. To further uncover the impacts that this humanewashing has on our food system, we teamed up with the organization Farm Action and interviewed Colorado rancher Mike Callicrate, who sheds light on how today’s most popular industry certifications and labels affect small farmers.
Op-ed: Thanks to USDA, “No Antibiotics, Ever” meat actually means “Antibiotics, Sometimes”
Even as prices for other goods drop, Americans are still grappling with soaring grocery prices: A $100 cart of groceries last year now costs about 10 percent more, so shoppers could have a harder time spending a little more to bring home food that aligns with their values and support the farmers who produce it. As if this weren’t enough, farmers and consumers alike are contending with another growing problem: humanewashing. Consolidated corporations like Tyson and Smithfield use misleading labels and claims to sell generic factory-farmed products at a premium while retail conglomerates and the USDA look the other way. As a result, products from independent farms disappear in a sea of meaningless food labels, and shoppers with the means to spend a little more for higher quality meat may not get what they’re paying for.
I wasn’t surprised when recent research by Farm Forward, as well as a peer-reviewed study in Science, uncovered antibiotic residues in a significant percentage of beef labeled “raised without antibiotics” and Animal Welfare Certified™ by Global Animal Partnership (GAP), including meat sold at Whole Foods Market. Meat with GAP’s label can sell for 40 percent more than “conventional” meat—without upholding the promises it makes to consumers, who are now holding the grocer accountable in court.
Together with Farm Action and the American Grassfed Association, farmers like me are calling on the USDA to investigate and recall beef with these labels because of the widespread mislabeling documented by these investigations. Americans rely on our government to protect our food supply, but the USDA itself only tests a small number of meat products for drug residue (in 2019, that figure was 0.003 percent of U.S. beef cattle), and only at levels that they deem dangerous—levels that have been called into question by the Environmental Protection Agency and many others. No federal agency enforces the accuracy of claims we see on store shelves. According to a recent survey, nearly half of Americans believe that welfare labels mean animals spend their whole lives on pasture, not on factory farms where drug use is the norm. Independent farmers work to meet these expectations, but it’s nearly impossible for us to break through the proliferation of deceptive labels when the deck is stacked against us.
The stakes of failing to fix our broken meat labels are high: shoppers can’t support independent farms that align with their values if they can’t distinguish between products. If we want a food system that raises animals according to our values, creates good jobs, reduces the risk of future pandemics, and promotes the flourishing of agricultural communities, accurate and transparent labeling is vital.
Author: Mike Callicrate is a Colorado rancher, rural advocate, and the owner of Ranch Foods Direct