Buyer Beware: “Humanely Raised” Meat and Poultry Might Not Be Cruelty Free
Have you ever paid more for chicken, beef, or pork because the package label said the animal was “humanely” or “sustainably” raised? I know I have. Well guess what? Turns out that a lot of those labels aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
According to a recent report issued by the Animal Welfare Institute, the federal government’s oversight of meat and poultry labeling is practically nonexistent. The United States Department of Agriculture is supposed to ensure that the labels on meat and poultry are neither false nor misleading. But USDA’s labeling process relies solely on information supplied by producers to determine whether claims related to “humane” animal treatment and “sustainable” agricultural practices are accurate and appropriate for use on a meat label.
Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse. Industrial animal producers aren’t stupid—far from it. They know that some consumers won’t buy meat or poultry unless the animal was “humanely” raised. They also know that a lot of consumers are willing to pay a premium for animal products that aren’t tainted by the factory farming system. So meat and poultry producers have a powerful financial incentive to tell consumers exactly what they want to hear. And because the USDA takes everything it’s told at face value, without doing any on-farm audits to ensure the accuracy of proposed labels, there’s no downside risk to lying to make a profit.
The upshot is a zero-accountability system that is tailor-made for consumer fraud.
This isn’t just me being paranoid: It appears that one of the country’s largest poultry producers is misleading consumers in precisely this fashion. According to two pending consumer lawsuits filed by the Humane Society of the United States, Purdue markets its high-priced “Harvestland” brand of chicken products as “humanely raised.” But according to HSUS, Purdue’s “Harvestland” hens are raised just like all the company’s other hens, which means crammed together in factory farms with no access to fresh air and then “shackled upside-down, electronically shocked, or bled to death while fully conscious and in intense prolonged pain.”
Sound “humane” to you? No, I didn’t think so.
What, if anything, can be done about this mess? First and foremost, USDA needs to stop rubber-stamping proposed labels for meat and poultry. According to AWI, USDA often approves “humanely raised” labels without requiring any supporting evidence. Plainly, this will not do.
AWI is pushing the agency to require “third-party certification” before approving any label claiming that the animal was humanely raised. This makes good sense: requiring independent, third-party verification of labeling claims create an incentive for manufacturers to practice what their labels preach.
But USDA isn’t going to change its ways overnight, even in the best-case scenario. Does that mean that your only cruelty-free option is to order a tofu burger? Not entirely. Although you can’t trust the labels at your local supermarket, there are still some places in America where you don’t have to check your conscience at the door.
Your best bet, short of avoiding meat entirely, is to stick to local farmers’ markets, where you can talk to the folks who actually raise the animals you are thinking about eating. Ask them how their animals are fed, raised, and slaughtered – you can even ask to visit their farms. That system isn’t foolproof, but it’s better than rolling the dice on cruelty every time you tuck into a steak.