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What do those labels you see on animal products really mean? Get the story behind the labels.

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October 2, 2020

11 min. read

Why We Resigned from the Board of the Nation’s Largest Animal Welfare Certification 

In April 2020, after more than a decade of service, Farm Forward resigned, in protest, from the board of the nation’s largest legitimate animal welfare certification, Global Animal Partnership or GAP. The reason, at one level, is simple: GAP is no longer a tool for change, but is increasingly a marketing scheme functioning to benefit massive corporations. Admittedly, that quip doesn’t capture the full story, so allow me to explain.  

GAP was, and in theory is, pledged to a unique “multi-stakeholder” approach that brings together producers and retailers—the very people profiting from factory farms—with animal protection advocates in the service of a shared mission to drive continual improvement for farmed animals. Early GAP meetings were sometimes exhilarating—charged with the belief that a true collaboration between industry and advocates was powerful enough to transform animal agriculture. The excitement was not unfounded as GAP now certifies nearly 4,000 farms that raise more than 416 million animals each year. Soon that number is likely to reach one billion. It’s quite an accomplishment. 

We are proud to have been among the very first supporters of GAP’s vision—Farm Forward’s first chief executive even served on the board of the organization that later transformed itself into GAP, the now defunct Animal Compassion Foundation. Three Farm Forward staff have served on GAP’s board and given more than a thousand hours of free labor in the service of GAP’s mission. Farm Forward even stepped up and did additional at-cost paid consulting when GAP was going through a leadership transition. We fought hard and long, and not without success.  

Watching GAP grow from an idea into a massive machine touching the lives of hundreds of millions of animals was not only inspiring, but a feather in Farm Forward’s cap. Financially we were by far the smallest organization at the planning table—all other board members came from organizations with budgets that were tens or even thousands of times larger than Farm Forward’s. Our service on GAP’s board not only improved the lives of animals, we thought, but helped establish Farm Forward’s reputation. Nothing would be better for Farm Forward as an organization or easier for me to do than to tell you that GAP continues to be a success story. That is the story you will hear from others, and it has a bit of truth in it. But sometimes a bit of truth can tell a big lie.  

GAP did not simply aim to achieve something better for animals (less cruelty), but to improve continually. “Continual improvement” has perhaps appeared on more GAP documents than any other phrase. The word “continual” was absolutely crucial to the multi-stakeholder approach at GAP’s core, as it signaled that incremental improvements were not the goal, but the means. The goal was to use incremental improvements as “steps” along a road to a truly just and humane farming system. Unlike other certification programs, GAP rates animal products at different “Step” levels—from Step 1, which offers only marginal improvement over standard industry practices, to its highest Steps, Step 5 and Step 5+, which represent optimal farms.  

GAP’s original vision, however, has been compromised and ultimately abandoned. For the overwhelming majority of the animals in its system, who are chickens, GAP producers have sometimes moved from Step 1, which in the view of most animal groups has such low standards it should be eliminated, to Step 2, but then they stagnate there. In other words, by GAP’s own analysis the certification is not driving continual improvement within its program. Certification at Step 2 might be palatable if we saw signs of producers moving to higher tiers over time. However, GAP has created no meaningful incentives for continuous improvement and does not limit the amount of time that producers can stay at Steps 1 through 4. No premium is guaranteed to producers for achieving higher Step levels. Unsurprisingly, few producers ever move, and if they do, it is due to market forces unrelated to GAP’s efforts.  

The GAP board is aware of this stagnation, but instead of considering it a problem to be addressed with the utmost urgency, instead of seeing that the very mission of GAP is at stake, the board has acquiesced to industry pressure to accept this stagnation. Actually, it is a bit worse. GAP has altered fundamental aspects of its operations in ways that ensure companies can continue to benefit from the halo of GAP certification even if their animal welfare standards are declining. Think about that. A producer could lower welfare standards from Step 5 to Step 1 and continue to benefit—perhaps as much as ever—from GAP’s endorsement. This is not an accident. This is not a loophole. This is the new design of GAP, and it’s why we left the board.  

Crucially, the multi-stakeholder approach that first guided GAP did not just appear out of nowhere. Why, you might wonder, would industry ever sit down, voluntarily, with animal groups that seek to interfere with their highly profitable exploitation of animals? Well, they wouldn’t have sat down voluntarily. They were forced.  

GAP began amidst a strengthening wave of corporate campaigns by animal groups that successfully targeted farmed animal cruelty and was further super-charged by Whole Foods Market (WFM) founder and former Farm Forward board member, John Mackey’s unexpected conversion to veganism, something he attributed to the remarkable grassroots leader, lauren Ornelas, who founded the Food Empowerment Project. In the context of unprecedented public pressure on meat companies, Mackey played a key role by leveraging WFM to force producers to the table. (Note that Mackey and indeed all of WFM’s historical management are now beholden to Amazon, the new owner.)  

This was the context that created the unique GAP board, where the likes of Farm Forward had the same number of votes as WFM. GAP was, in essence, a hard-won and unique opportunity to pressure industry credibly and efficiently. That opportunity has been lost. 

Slowly, industry turned the tables. The animal groups on the GAP board were more or less told: This is our show now. We’d like you to stay as you enhance our reputation, but we can’t have this continual improvement stuff. In fact, we want concessions, and if you don’t give them, we’ll walk, and you will have achieved nothing. Take what we give you, or else. 

In essence, GAP worked for a time because actual force was being used to pressure companies to change. The GAP board was highly unusual in that it was designed to preserve these tensions and thus drive change. When the industry interests pressuring the GAP board began to say: our way or the highway, the board faced a moment of truth. Or rather, the animal groups on the board faced a moment of truth: did we acquiesce and hope that our insider status would allow us to do more good for animals, or did we hold our ground, realizing that some producers could walk away from GAP? Did we call their perhaps-but-perhaps-not bluff? We chose—myself and my colleagues at the other animal groups—to accommodate, hoping that we could achieve some improvement for animals. We were wrong. I was wrong. The demands for accommodations became bolder and bolder until calls were made to eliminate even the fundamental principle of having a balanced board comprising half animal groups and half industry. I left the board when this shift away from the core principals upon which GAP was founded became inevitable. 

Despite great efforts to make it appear otherwise, animal groups now have no more leverage on the GAP board than I would have if I wrote a letter to McDonald’s and asked them to change, pretty please. Industry is in control, often through the guise of “letting science lead.” At the time I left the board, the director of GAP was paid, not by GAP, but by Whole Foods Market, which creates a conflict of interest. If you trust the fox to guard the henhouse, GAP is your organization. 

What GAP does now is follow the trends already established in the industry and ratified by industry-controlled “science.” This does mean that we can expect some improvements for animals within GAP’s system, but any improvements we see are unlikely to be in any way driven by GAP. Again, it would be great for Farm Forward and me to remain on the board to share in the glory of all the “good work” GAP is doing. But the “good work” is an illusion. What GAP would have us believe is good work is just the emerging industry status quo, and it in no way challenges factory farming. On the contrary, by reducing the pressure on companies from continual improvement to simply documenting “this product is better than that one,” GAP functions to entrench factory farming by giving consumers the illusion that they have a choice. The choice is, almost always, factory farming.  

Let me close with a concrete example so you need not take my word, and can judge for yourself what GAP has become.  

In the last year, GAP has made it harder for shoppers to distinguish between its Steps. The original GAP product labels displayed a product’s Step number prominently. But GAP’s new “generic label” allows producers to label their products with a happy, earth green “Animal Welfare Certified” label without displaying the Step number prominently, or in some cases, even displaying it at all. When lower welfare producers at Steps 1 through 3 advertise products simply as “Animal Welfare Certified,” they benefit from shoppers’ assumption that because some products with GAP certification require, for example, that animals be raised outdoors, all do (the vast majority of animals certified by GAP are raised in confinement). When consumers can’t distinguish high welfare products from low welfare products, they’ll naturally purchase the cheaper products from low-tier farms.  

So why would GAP make such a change? Why would GAP let a product that it had previously insisted—for more than a decade—must be labeled as Step 1, 2, or 3 simply be labeled as “Animal Welfare Certified”? Who would benefit from such a change? Why would GAP do that against the advice of every single animal group representative on the board? 

The answer is disturbingly simple: GAP is not an animal group. That is not only my opinion, but it is the view of the current Director of GAP, who has made this statement repeatedly (the same Director paid by WFM). GAP is now designed to misappropriate the authority of animal groups for the industry’s advertising purposes. The only silver lining here is that GAP does, at least, typically ensure that products are better than the absolute worst. Perhaps the new labels should simply say that: “Not the absolute worst.” 

This is not what I or Farm Forward signed up for. Animal welfare certification should be—and can be—about more than merely rewarding companies for changes they were already planning to make. If all you want to know is that suffering, genetically modified chickens are confined in a dirty barn instead of a dirty cage, GAP is here to help. If you can find the unicorn Step 5 or 5+ products—and confirm that GAP has not given an exemption which allows the producer to circumvent GAP’s standards—the products really will come from animals raised in good conditions. But if you want a certification that sees consumers, not corporations, as its customers, and if you want a certification that is about ending rather than entrenching factory farming, GAP is not what you are looking for. 

We’ll soon see these dynamics play out with spectacular global consequence for billions of animals as GAP considers, for the first time, actually implementing meaningful genetic welfare standards for chickens—something Farm Forward had advocated for from day one. Recently GAP revealed some of the results of a major chicken welfare study along with a curious pledge to “reinvent the modern broiler chicken” through new breed standards. This is curious because broiler chickens—genetic monstrosities engineered and brought to market for the first time only after World War II—have inherently poor welfare. A “broiler” chicken is always a genetically modified hybrid chicken and didn’t exist before the 1950s. For millennia, chickens were raised for both meat and eggs, and to thrive outdoors. It was not until the beginning of industrial farming that chickens were divided into genetically modified specialty types, the broiler (for meat) and the layer (for eggs), and bred for confinement indoors. Thinking of chickens as a technology to be fixed rather than a being owed care is the crux of the problem. Promising to reinvent the broiler chicken is like pledging to reinvent cancer rather than end it.  

Still, there are massive differences in the degree of suffering produced by different broiler bird strains, and GAP could, when it releases its new standards reflecting the findings of its study, do worse or better. With more than 400 million lives in the balance each year, all of us who care about animals should care about the decisions GAP will make in the coming months. Whatever change is made for broiler chickens, our suspicion, unfortunately, is that it will not include a path for continual improvement that ultimately leads to genetically healthy birds. It may do far less. 

We sincerely hope we are wrong. 

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Last Updated

October 2, 2020