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In response to the New York Times’ recent deep dive into the harmful realities of the modern poultry industry, Farm Forward’s executive director, Andrew deCoriolis, penned a letter applauding the video series for “laying bare the nightmare that is the U.S. chicken industry.” And in a historic first, the letter introduced the word “humanewashing” to the Times’ readers, spotlighting how, for years, the poultry industry has systematically exploited the goodwill of consumers with misleading labels and claims including “all natural” and “humanely raised.”
Sandwiched between Farm Forward’s response and another thoughtful letter calling for change was a brief diatribe from the National Chicken Council (NCC)—the largest trade association for the chicken industry and one of the most notorious humanewashers out there. The NCC complained that the Times piece was merely propaganda intended to increase the price of chicken, offering the rebuttal: “The proper care of our chickens is not only an ethical obligation, but also makes good business sense.”
That is a rather stunning claim, given the NCC’s track record of deceiving consumers: In 2017, it rolled out the “Chicken Guarantees,” a set of industry-wide standards meant to assure consumers that meat chickens raised in the U.S. are not confined to cages and have not been given steroids or hormones. While likely true, these claims are deceptive: cages are not used to raise chickens for meat in the U.S., and federal law prohibits administering steroids or hormones to chickens raised for meat. The Chicken Guarantees add a bold check-mark to meat packaging offering consumers a false sense that standard practices have been certified as humane. This is akin to a hypothetical paint company stamping a “verified lead-free” label on its cans to paint them as somehow cleaner and greener, despite lead having been banned in paints since the 1970s.
And then there’s the NCC’s connection to One Health Certified (OHC)—one of the most egregiously misleading labels found on grocery shelves today. OHC trumpets a holistic set of standards, but in reality, the label can adorn poultry products that merely meet the standards established by NCC—which are essentially bottom-of-the-barrel practices. And given that NCC’s members constitute 95 percent of all chicken produced in the United States, these practices are nearly universal. The mastermind behind OHC, Mountaire Farms—whose CEO is the current vice chairman of the NCC—uses the label to obfuscate its abysmal environmental record, like its recent $200 million settlement for polluting the water of thousands of Delaware residents. Further, Mountaire has faced ongoing fines and violations for its abhorrent and dangerous working conditions.
Not even Earth Day is off-limits for the NCC, which co-opted the holiday this year with a webpage and a slew of infographics proclaiming that chicken is “climatarian diet-friendly.” Big Poultry’s myriad ills, from its enormous water usage and pollution to its public health nightmares like antibiotic misuse and pandemic potential, were apparently not worth mentioning.
The NCC’s business isn’t in sustainability or animal welfare; it’s in marketing products to consumers who care about sustainability and animal welfare. So when NCC leaders assert that treating chickens humanely makes “good business sense,” closer scrutiny reveals that what they mean is that making us believe chickens were treated humanely makes good business sense. After all, poultry companies get to rake in the profits without changing factory farming practices.
According to Farm Forward’s recent findings, they have largely been successful in that endeavor. American consumers are widely confused about the true meaning of welfare labels; for example, 30 percent of Americans incorrectly believe that OHC indicates that the animal was raised continuously on pasture. The reality, however, is that today’s certifications and marketing claims largely mask factory farmed products. Yet consumers expect otherwise—45 percent of Americans believe that OHC should mean the animal was raised on pasture.
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