Animal Welfare Labeling Might Be Misleading, But That's No Reason To Abandon Them

Categories: Food News

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How you you label the eggs that came from these chickens?
An article in Audubon Magazine regarding truth in labeling has me a little flustered. It points out that the labels that pepper our groceries with messages of good tidings and well being are mostly bullshit. It also implies that specific terms such as cruelty free, cage free and environmentally friendly are completely misleading and false. A blog post on Side Dish that points to the Audubon article takes things further, instructing readers who encounter some of these terms to disregard them. This is bad advice.

I share the frustration. While walking through Whole Foods and building a $38 tuna sandwich a few weeks ago, I encountered a lot of labels that were pretty confusing.

Check this out...

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Sustainably harvested
While checking out tuna cans I found these herring filets were sustainably harvested from the clear, cold waters of the Gulf of Maine. This statement is likely marketing and not validated by an independent third party.


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Responsibly sourced
Then in the frozen section I found this responsibly sourced fried cod. It's not clear if this cod came from clear, cold water or a murky industrial mud pit, but at least I know it's responsibly sourced. Right?


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Next I checked out the dairy case. Look how happy that farmer-owned cow is! He cuddles with humans before he's turned into veal chops. I bet he tastes delicious.


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Animal welfare rated
In the meat counter, I found some ground beef. This package has almost enough fat for a perfect burger. It was also raised in accordance with animal welfare level number one: no cages, no crates, no crowding.


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Barn roaming
This chicken is peppered with catch phrases like no antibiotics ever and barn roaming.


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Animal welfare rated
The same package of chicken was animal welfare rated level two: enriched environment.


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Animal welfare rated
These sirloin steaks are animal welfare rated level four: animal centered.


I took a lot more pictures while I shopped, but many of them came out too blurry to use. But looking for labels and language that spoke to the well being of the animals I could potentially eat was illuminating. Nearly every single product had some claim about sustainability, organics or animal welfare. Others spoke of pristine environments and responsibility. But just because labeling requirements are murky, doesn't mean we should completely disregard them.

The Humane Society of the United States is doing a lot or work in this area. They maintain definitions for commonly used labels and the rules about the use of those labels on their website. And while working with other organizations that share their concerns, they've talked many farming organizations and the restaurants who buy their products into taking steps to improve the conditions in which our food is raised.

Disregarding labels completely discounts that work and ignores progress to come. Just last week the HSUS announced the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments bill, which was introduced in the Senate. If that bill passes, egg-laying chickens will get twice the square footage they currently have. And those green and orange stickers that denote animal welfare ratings are making it easier for customers to make informed decisions.

Comparing free-range with cage-free can be very confusing. Understanding that four is better than one on a progressive scale of animal welfare is pretty straight forward. Hopefully more grocery stores will adapt similar, simple labeling systems, that are verified by third parties.

Nobody wants to feel duped when marketing materials persuade them their chickens are dancing in fields of insects and clover, when they're really roosting in their own shit. But disregarding the whole labeling process is a mistake. Conditions for some animals have grown significantly better, and these labels should continue to be evaluated, refined and regulated.

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mark zero (Jason)
mark zero (Jason)

I recommend everyone interested in the subject read the Seafood Watch website to get a deeper understanding of different fishing methods and their consequences. They've published several free guides to making more "ocean-friendly" choices, and now they have free phone apps as well.


Great overview. I am much more concerned about the everyday treatment and final slaughter of animals than whether the end product can be defined as "organic". It is telling that there are no 5 ratings for meat, and chicken is consistently rated poorly (although some have told me vital farms sold at WF scores better).

The answer is both simple and impossible. If customers refused to purchase the chickens, cattle, and other meat products until WF and other sellers guarantee humane conditions, conditions will change, and change quickly.


Wait, so you would rather eat a chicken that spent its entire nine months of life roosting in its hit and was then delicately plucked from the "farm" and gently laid to rest during its final seconds? 


 I am familiar with slaughtering chickens and other fowl and am under no illusions  there is a kind and nice way to do slaughter a chicken.  Wringing the neck is fine, especially if it spent 9 mths in a natural environment, though few chickens make it that long.  Chicken farms are so far removed from my grandmother's small family farm as to make a comparison more a study of contrasts. The new processors are shameful.  True free range is certainly more expensive but the benefits of lowest cost production are, IMHO, more than offset by ethical and pollution concerns.  Until consumers demand these changes, they will not happen.

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