What’s in a label? Understanding animal welfare claims

Food labels that emphasize how animals are treated and cared for on the farm or ranch are popping up in grocery stores across the United States, but that does not mean that these labels are easy for consumers to understand, says Heidi Carroll, South Dakota State University Extension livestock stewardship associate.

“As a shopper, it is important to understand what a label actually means and the on-farm guidelines in place for the specific program of the label,” she says. “Claims about on-farm care practices do not necessarily tell the shopper anything about the safety or nutrient content of the product.”

Carroll says that each label references specific standards of care for each animal that the program certifies. Most animal welfare label certification programs are managed by non-governmental organizations. For example, the label “Certified Humane” is managed by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC); “American Humane Certified” is managed by the American Humane Association; “Animal Welfare Approved” is managed by the Animal Welfare Approved group which is created by the Animal Welfare Institute and “American Grassfed Certified” is managed by the American Grassfed Association. Additionally, some supermarkets (e.g. Whole Foods) have created their own animal welfare rating systems for meats sold in their stores.

“It is important for shoppers who currently purchase or desire to purchase these products to read through the care standards for each animal to understand what practices are allowable because each animal welfare certification label has their own standard,” Carroll says.

Allowable practices can be found on each organization’s website. Along with humane care practices, the standards may specify guidelines for antibiotic and hormone use, pasture or pen requirements, and feeding animal byproducts.

Carroll notes that the label does not state whether the program uses an audit to verify on-farm practices, so this information must be found by reviewing the certification process for each program. “My review of these programs showed that the majority of certified welfare labels are audited by a third-party at least once annually,” she says.

Carroll also stresses that consumers should be aware that food products not enrolled in animal welfare certification programs does not imply that animals are not provided with acceptable care or that the food product poses health risks to those eating it.

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