In recent years, animal abuses in the meat industry have received increased attention. In response, some consumers have demanded meat produced in a “humane” fashion, giving rise to labels such as “free range,” “cage free,” and “organic.” Unfortunately, according to a new report from Farm Sanctuary, these labels are often misleading and mean relatively little in terms of animal welfare.
Farm Sanctuary’s report–“The Truth Behind the Labels: Farm Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices”–traces the origins to the problem of corporate-dominated animal agriculture. With consolidation has come increased mechanization and animals have come to be viewed primarily as productive units. Meat, dairy, and egg farmers are concerned with how much can be produced, not how animals are treated. This has led to a number of abusive practices such as “battery cages” and “debeaking” that allow a greater number of animals to be kept in small locations. While meaning that animals are treated worse, it has helped to secure greater profit.
In some cases, this has lead to a backlash. Animal rights activists have criticized abusive agriculture practices and there have been some successes in illuminating the abuses that happen on factory farms. In response, meat producers have responded by producing a variety of products that purport to be free of the worst abuses. This is a niche market in which consumers pay a premium for “humane” products.
Farm Sanctuary’s report analyzed these various labeling schemes and found that in many cases they mean little for animal welfare. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows produces to use a variety of terms–“cage free,” “free range,” “free roaming,” “pasture raised,” “grass fed,” “organic,” “natural,” and “naturally raised”–but they have vague and informal definitions and in most cases have no form of verifying compliance. This often means little improvement in the conditions in which animals are kept.
Two of the most common–“cage free” and “free range”–are particularly vague:
- Farmers are not required to provide “cage free” laying hens with access to the outdoors. Often, hens are crowded by the thousands into large barns where each bird is allotted approximately one square foot of space.
- “Free range” birds raised for meat often lead lives very similar to their factory farmed counterparts. They may be crowded by the thousands into factory-like warehouses with no flock size limits, and the outdoor area may be little more than a barren dirt lot that is difficult for them to access.
The animal agriculture industries have sought to produce their own voluntary standards and interpret federal standards in a way that allows for inhumane factory farming practices. They have taken only the most minimal steps to improve the conditions in which animals are treated and most of their labels seek only to alleviate consumer concerns rather than actually improving the conditions under which animals are raised.
Overall, Farm Sanctuary argues that it is next to impossible for consumers to know if animals are treated humanely. While some third-party standards have been developed with animal advocacy organizations, Farm Sanctuary says that even if those standards were followed, animal agriculture is by its very nature “inhumane” as it is based on commodifying and slaughtering animals.