By Meg McIntire

“Eat Fresh,” “Food with Integrity,” “Happy Cows”…there are thousands of food companies that exist today who talk a big game when it comes to animal welfare and consumers’ health. So big, in fact, many of them have based their entire business models on the idea that by making a few minor changes to their practices and slapping certain animal-friendly labels or slogans on their products, profits will start rolling in. Unfortunately for animals, in many cases, they aren’t wrong.

This deceitful food labeling marketing trend has been fully embraced by the food and restaurant industry, but has anything really changed besides an increase in brightly colored “free-range” stickers and the consumer’s sense of accomplishment?

Unfortunately, only on the surface. Many restaurant-goers now feel as though it’s no longer enough to have the “antibiotic-free” stamp on their burger wrapper and dig in. They want the assurance that their dinner roamed free in a sunny pasture, slept on a billowy bed of hay, lived a happy life and died a dignified death. But then they still eat the animal product.

This is because many people generally want to accept that there are some things we simply need to do less, consume fewer of or not at all. Profiting off of this willful ignorance is something food and agriculture businesses delight in because it is a way for them to make typically meaningless changes in their meat and dairy purchasing and get a standing ovation from the media and consumers.

Although the movement to put an end to factory farming has made progress over the last decade, it is important to ask ourselves if we want to end something, what are we advocating should replace it? Unfortunately, many consumers have decided that “humanely raised” animal products are an acceptable alternative and we’ve seen the “Happy Meat” market explode in the last several years…spreading from grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes to chain restaurants like Chipotle and In-N-Out Burger.

Fraudulent labeling using words like “humane certified,” “cage free,” “free range,” “grass fed,” “organic,” “local” and “sustainable” delude consumers into believing that if they spend a little more to purchase these products, they can eat cows, chickens, pigs, lambs, turkeys, ducks, eggs and milk from idyllic “humane” farms that treat animals with respect and kindness. In essence, the message being given to the public is that you can be an animal rights activist by EATING animals exploited and killed if they have the proper sticker on them.

Whole Foods markets provide an excellent example of this backwards labeling trend. Whole Foods unveiled its “Farm Animal Compassion Standards” in 2005, which consists of a five-step ranking system for cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens slaughtered to be sold as meat in its stores around the country.  If you’ve ever been inside a Whole Foods market, you’ve likely seen the meat section, completely covered with marketing slogans and pictures of cows grazing in idyllic fields, all aimed at convincing shoppers that they’re doing the right thing by purchasing “humane” meat, eggs and dairy products at a marked-up price. The store even boasts in a pamphlet that, “As of June 2012, approximately 1,900 operations that supply Whole Foods Market, raising more than 147 million animals annually, are certified Step-rated farms and ranches, ranging from Step 1 to Step 5+ through the Global Animal Partnership Five-Step Animal Welfare Rating program.” One hundred and 47 million animals is a startling number, especially considering these were only the animals killed under their “welfare program” and that Whole Foods is rapidly increasing the program to cover other species of animals as well.

Let’s also consider Chipotle, a fast food company whose “food with integrity” slogan assures customers that, “when sourcing meat, we work hard to find farmers and ranchers who are doing things the right way.” But if you dig deeper into what exactly this message means when it comes to Chipotle’s business model, you’ll find that it lacks any meaningful commitment to animal welfare practices—it only says it will make an effort to find farmers doing things “the right way.”

However by adopting animal welfare rhetoric and empty promises, Chipotle directly benefitted by gaining media attention that drastically increased demand for even more of its meat and dairy products. At one point, Chipotle had to stop serving pork because the “humane” farms they were using couldn’t keep up with demand.

But what do these labels that consumers crave actually mean? Does “Grass Fed” mean the cows are treated better? Are “Humanely Raised” animals slaughtered humanely too (isn’t that an oxymoron)? It’s this type of mixed messaging that allows false labeling and advertising to continue when it comes to marketing meat and dairy products to the public. So let’s take a look under the labels and reveal their actual meanings.

“Humanely raised and Handled”: This term actually has no defined standards by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A producer decides what it means to them and then labels the product if they feel they’ve met their own standards. They can ask the USDA to verify that they have met their own self set standards. If the USDA feels they have, they can then add “USDA Process Verified” to the Humanely Raised and Handled label.

“Certified Organic”: This certification is overseen by the USDA and requires that cattle be fed 100 percent organic feed. The truth is, the Certified Organic designation only requires that records be kept regarding the animal’s diet. There are no stipulations regarding treatment in this certification at all. That means the animal could be subjected to much the same horrors a factory farmed animal faces prior to being slaughtered for consumption, so long as the feed it was given was organic.

“Cage-Free”: This term applies typically to eggs and egg products. “Cage free” basically means the birds have never been confined in a cage. Although eggs labelled this way come from hens not confined to a cage, the housing density at many of these farms may be so high that some of the problems associated with caging are still experienced.

“Natural/All Natural”: Arguably the most meaningless label on the market right now, the terms have virtually no definition whatsoever. In the case of meat, the USDA defines natural as being minimally processed without the addition of preservatives or artificial ingredients. This refers only to the finished product, however. The cattle can eat any drugs, hormones, antibiotics, fillers or GMO laden foods out there as well as being subjected to the worst animal welfare atrocities imaginable but still be called “Natural.”

Truth and Consequences
So what are the consequences of consumers equating welfare “improvements” with making a positive impact in the lives of animals? One is clearly defined in a study that was completed after the passage of Proposition 2 in California, which found that consumers did not decrease their egg consumption after hearing of the horrors of egg production. Instead, they simply switched to cage-free eggs. Another disturbing example is a study that found veal consumption actually increased in Europe following the passage of a veal crate ban.

Friends of Animals recognizes the destructive impact of promoting labeling schemes that steer consumers away from “factory farmed” products and toward “humanely raised” animal products. Our stance has always been that animal farming as a whole is the problem, regardless of the size of the farm, or how animals are bred and raised for slaughter. The only antidote to the horrors of animal farming is a plant-based lifestyle.