As the number of consumers concerned about animal welfare grows, such labels, or seals, as they are known in the business, are spreading like kudzu on packages of meat and eggs in the refrigerated cases of grocery stores, to assure shoppers that the cattle, pigs or chickens were treated well.
But the labels may just as easily sow confusion or even mislead shoppers, who probably know little or nothing about the small number of organizations that create most of them and police the food producers that use them.
“Consumers are looking behind the barn doors at these factory farms, and they don’t like what they’re seeing,” said Daisy Freund, the director of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which created a website last year to help consumers navigate the seals. “Unfortunately, we know that when they hit the grocery store, they’re faced with a profound lack of transparency, accountability and, in some cases, downright deception when it comes to statements on packaging about humane treatment of animals.”
So what are shoppers to make of these labels? Following are some basic facts:
Most are issued by three nonprofit groups — the American Humane Association, Humane Farm Animal Care and A Greener World — that set their own standards for the practices needed to win certification. Food companies pay fees to use the labels; more than one billion of the more than nine billion animals raised for food each year in the United States are covered by a certification program.
In addition, Whole Foods established the Global Animal Partnership, a five-step certification program it requires its suppliers to use; it is also used by a few small meat companies and small retailers.
(Federal organic regulations set standards for animal care, though in some cases they are less rigorous than those of private certification groups.)
But the phrases on the labels have no set meaning; the federal government has no rules for the use of words like “humane.” The term “free-range” on a product, for example, does not necessarily mean that an animal had access to pasture.
Robin Ganzert, the chief executive of American Humane, did not respond to emails or texts requesting an interview.
Not all of American Humane’s standards are lower. For instance, it requires at least 21¾ square feet of outdoor space for hens laying eggs to be labeled free-range, or roughly 10 times the amount of space such hens must have to win the “Certified Humane” seal from the animal welfare certification program of Humane Farm Animal Care. (Humane Farm Animal Care defends its minimum of two square feet, saying it ensures that “hens will not have to go far to find cover, shade and nutrients.”)
Such nuances make parsing the various labels difficult for shoppers. “I don’t think many consumers understand that there are these differences in certification standards,” said Temple Grandin, the animal scientist and noted champion of animal welfare. Ms. Grandin is on American Humane’s scientific advisory board and advises other certification groups. She acknowledged that the organization’s standards are not as rigorous as others’, but said it played to a special segment of the meat industry.
“What A.H.A. is trying to do is work with large-scale commercial producers so that they have at least some standards,” she said. “But if you’re looking for strict confirmation of how long a cow has been in a feedlot, A.H.A. probably isn’t going to pass muster.”
Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has been reassessing its evaluation of the standards set by the groups. “The only one we have any confidence in and think gives you value for your money is Animal Welfare Approved,” said Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. “The rest of them have, to greater and lesser degrees, shortcomings — and American Humane in particular has a lot of shortcomings.”
Perhaps that explains why the labels have become such a point of contention. Last year, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Foster Farms, a large poultry producer, questioning the “American Humane Certified” label on packages of its chicken. “The A.H.A. standards that Foster Farms purports to follow in order to attain ‘humane certification’ from the A.H.A. permit and even necessitate inhumane treatment on their face,” asserted the plaintiffs, who are consumers.
In a lawsuit filed in May, Handsome Brook Farm, an egg company, sued Adele Douglass, the founder of Humane Farm Animal Care, after she sent a letter to some of the company’s customers contending that claims on its cartons that the hens were organic and pasture-raised could not always be verified.
The Organic Consumers Association has sued Handsome Brook over those claims. Betsy Babcock, a founder of Handsome Brook, declined to comment on any litigation. But she said the company had chosen American Humane to certify its eggs after considering all of the certification groups.
“We wanted to go with someone who had been doing this for a long time,” Ms. Babcock said. “The other thing was, we wanted to work with an organization whose standards are scientifically based and objective.”