The Animal Welfare Institute found that some producers are being approved for vague labels without sufficient evidence

By Claudia Harmata
November 20, 2019 05:22 PM
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty

Consumers looking for environmentally friendly and cruelty-free food are being misled by some meat and poultry producers, according to a new report.

In September, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) published a new study about the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and their food labelling process — which the non-profit says allows producers to claim their products are “humane” and “sustainable” on their packaging without sufficient supporting evidence.

The AWI analyzed a collection of files sent to the USDA for label approval that were made for 23 distinct claims to appear on the packages of 19 meat and poultry products from 2014 through 2018.

Those claims included: “agriculturally sustainable and environmentally friendly,” “ethically raised,” “free raised,” “humane,” “humanely raised,” “raised humanely,” “socially raised,” “sustainable,” “sustainably farmed,” and “thoughtfully raised.”

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Their review revealed that the USDA is repeatedly approving the use of these claims as long as the producer defines the claim on the packaging. While this may seem like it should prevent issues of non-transparency, AWI has found that the label definitions are often “inconsistent” and “approved without sufficient verification that producers actually meet these definitions.”

“The system is easily manipulated by producers who want to make higher-welfare claims on their packages and charge a premium without improving the treatment of animals raised under their care,” Erin Sutherland, staff attorney for AWI’s farm animal program said to PEOPLE in a press release. “Because of the USDA’s lack of oversight, consumers are often thwarted in their attempts to use labels to guide their food-buying decisions.”

When the AWI submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for substantiation documents from the USDA for the 23 claims, the agency was only able to provide documents for 11 of them.

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The nonprofit also noted in their report that while the USDA has the authority to deny misleading labels, they do not have the authority to “regulate the manner in which animals are raised or the impacts of agricultural production on the environment.”

For conscious consumers looking to learn more about which food labels are legitimate, the AWI published a comprehensive guide detailing which labels can be trusted and which to avoid.

A spokesperson with the  Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the USDA, provided this comment to PEOPLE in response to AWI’s report.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the agency in USDA with the responsibility for ensuring that the labeling of meat, poultry and egg products is truthful and not misleading in accordance with the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), and the Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA).  FSIS’ jurisdiction begins at time of slaughter in a federally inspected establishment.  We do not have jurisdiction on the farm for how the animals are raised.

There are no federal regulations specifically addressing animal raising claims.  Animal raising claims are special statements and claims that establishments are required to submit to FSIS for approval for compliance with 9 CFR 412.1, which outlines label approval. Labeling that bears animal raising claims referring to the way that the source animal for a meat or poultry product or the source of an egg product was raised need to be evaluated and approved by FSIS prior to use in commerce. FSIS will only approve a claim if a statement is provided on the label showing ownership and including an explanation of the meaning of the claim for consumers.

In order to receive FSIS label approval, the company submitting any animal raising claim should provide FSIS with the following documentation to support such claim:  1)  a detailed written description explaining the controls used for ensuring that the raising claim is valid from birth to harvest or the period of raising being referenced by the claim; 2) a signed and dated document describing how the animals are raised (e.g., vegetarian fed, raised without antibiotics, grass fed), to support that the specific claim made is truthful and not misleading; 3) a written description of the product tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution; 4) a written description for the identification, control, and segregation of nonconforming animals/product; and 5) if a third-party certifies a claim, such as AWI, a current copy of the certificate.

For animal raising claims such as “humane” or “humanely raised” and “sustainable,” all are considered animal and environmental stewardship claims.  The producer or federally inspected establishment is asked to include the documentation stated above when submitting its label application for evaluation.  Also, the label needs to define what this type of claim means to their company. The definition should explain what “humane,” “humanely raised,” “sustainable,” “sustainably raised,” “environmental stewardship,” etc., is in reference to (e.g., “XYZ Company defines humane for our animals as raised on open pastures, never confined to feedlots, and access to plenty of water and sunlight.”).

Additionally, FSIS in-plant personnel verify that establishments comply with labeling regulations when performing the General Labeling task.  For products bearing animal raising claims, in-plant personnel verify whether establishments maintain FSIS label approval on file. 

More information on the guidance for animal raising claims can be found here: Labeling Guidelines on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions.