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June 14, 2023

3 mins read

USDA’s Latest Changes to Meat Labels are a Step in the Right Direction, But More is Needed

The USDA announced changes to the guidelines meat companies must follow if they want to label their products as “humanely raised,” “free range,” or “raised without antibiotics.” Farm Forward has long been concerned that most, if not all, animal raising claims confuse the public and humanewash meat company practices. Farm Forward’s own 2021 consumer survey showed that nearly half (45 percent) of Americans think that labels that “certify high welfare” should guarantee that animals are always raised on pasture. However, we know that—regardless of the label you see on the package—finding products from animals raised on pasture is nearly impossible.

As it stands, most animal raising claims have no formal definition, and meat companies simply define the terms, often describing practices that are barely different from standard industry practices. Earlier this year, Farm Forward, along with the Animal Welfare Institute, encouraged Senators Blumenthal (D-CT) and Booker (D-NJ) to take action on this issue, and as a result, they championed a letter urging the USDA to better define and regulate animal raising claims to protect consumers and small farmers.

The need for reform to labeling couldn’t be more urgent, especially when it comes to the “raised without antibiotics” claim. Last year, Farm Forward’s antibiotics investigation revealed that a cattle product that was Certified Organic, Animal Welfare Certified, and “raised without antibiotics” tested positive for a prohibited antibiotic. This was followed by a peer-reviewed paper (and subsequent public attention) which found that 26 percent of cattle labeled as Animal Welfare Certified, which prohibits animals from being treated with antibiotics, came from a feedlot where at least one animal tested positive for antibiotics. The Animal Welfare Certified program is widely used by Whole Foods Market.

The USDA’s announcement today signaled a willingness to require meat companies labeling meat as “raised without antibiotics” to prove, through testing, that the claim is true, but a lot depends on the details. The USDA intends to conduct its own research, and it may still decide not to require testing. Testing is essential to ensure the “raised without antibiotics” claim is truthful. In our 2022 survey, 49 percent of respondents—the plurality—incorrectly thought that the “raised without antibiotics” label means that the product was tested for antibiotic residue. We hope the USDA will require testing and meet consumer expectations.

The steps outlined in the USDA’s announcement—while encouraging—may not be enough to ensure that animal raising claims are meaningful. For example, USDA said they would “recommend” companies submit more evidence to verify their claims and would “encourage” third-party certifications to verify the claims. Neither of those are binding requirements, and given how widespread deception is on grocery store shelves today, anything less may end up missing the mark.

The USDA’s announcement encourages—but does not require—third-party certification, meaning that meat companies may be left to police themselves. Even if the USDA does require third-party certification, it’s critical that they disqualify industry-controlled humanewashing certifications like One Health Certified or American Humane as evidence that a company has indeed raised animals in more humane conditions. Until the USDA sets clear standards for claims like “humanely raised” that are meaningfully above industry standard, and those standards are verified by independent certifications, consumers should be wary when buying products with these labels.

Farm Forward will continue to fight humanewashing and push the USDA to better regulate meat labels to protect consumers and farmers. Join us to help us end humanewashing.