Are Some Animal Welfare Labels ‘Humanewashing’?

While some advocates say animal welfare labels are helping change the industry, a new report points to a lack of rigor among widely adopted labels, prompting questions about whether consumer choice can be a lever for change.

shopper inspecting certified meats for their humanewashing labels

If you’ve bought meat or eggs in a grocery store recently, you’ve probably seen a wide range of labels promising improved treatment of farm animals.

Many of these labels look similar and use the same words and imagery—think cows on pasture or strong, healthy chickens pecking in the grass—but they’re not all the same. Some come from independent, third-party certifiers, and others are created by the meat and egg industries themselves.

Now, a new report from the anti-factory farming group Farm Forward seeks to outline the differences between independent and industry animal welfare labels and expose what it calls “humanewashing” among both types of groups.

Like the now widely recognized practice of “greenwashing,” Farm Forward says that companies use humanewashing to deceive consumers who care about animal rights, leading them to believe animals were raised according to their expectations of humane treatment even when they were not. And since some consumers have become savvy to unregulated labeling terms like “all natural” and “free-range,” organizations and industry are increasingly using certification schemes to formalize their standards.

“[Animal welfare labels] generally function to confuse consumers, lock truly high-welfare animal farmers out of important markets, and thwart the kinds of reforms necessary to phase out industrialized farming.”

At the heart of the report is Farm Forward’s criticism of the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a program created by Whole Foods CEO and co-founder John Mackey in 2008 to establish standards and labeling for meat sold in his stores and beyond. It was intended to encourage farmers to steadily improve their practices over time and has grown into one of the most recognized and respected animal welfare labels since, with more than 400 million animals covered by the program and more than 1,200 certified products.

Now, after working in partnership with GAP for over a decade, Farm Forward is calling attention to the way GAP labels products that land at the bottom of their five-step system. Products at that low end of the scale can now don a generic label of “Animal Welfare Certified” which Farm Forward says gives those products a halo effect from the higher-welfare products—without making changes to their practices.

“Welfare certifications are designed, ostensibly, to help consumers identify animal products consistent with their ethical concerns,” reads the report. “But many are intentionally deceptive, and all are problematic. They generally function to confuse consumers, lock truly high-welfare animal farmers out of important markets, and thwart the kinds of reforms necessary to phase out industrialized farming.”

However, some animal welfare experts and advocates say that even the smallest improvements can alleviate animal suffering at a large scale and that calling out certifications making incremental progress detracts from important changes they are making. Others say that food certifications almost always operate as marketing tools, and the report’s findings merely reflect that reality.

“What we have concluded is that despite our best efforts . . . these certifications, like the industry label claims and unregulated claims before them, are now doing more to deceive and mislead consumers and are ultimately serving as a hindrance to progress on factory farming issues rather than a step in a better direction,” said Andrew deCoriolis, Farm Forward’s executive director.

Findings on Animal Welfare Certifications

The federal government does not regulate terms like “humane” or “free-range,” so as concerns about animal welfare on farms have grown over the last decade, multiple certification programs have emerged. Each has its own set of unique standards, and most require farmers to pay a fee to certify their operation and products.

The report analyzes several of the most popular labels. It calls out certifications produced explicitly by trade groups—including UEP Certified, created by United Egg Producers, and Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM), created by the National Milk Producers Federation—identifying them as pure marketing tools that codify standard industry practices. It also details challenges with third-party certifications.

American Humane Certified, which works closely with large companies like Butterball and Eggland’s Best to make small tweaks within standard industry systems, has long been cited as among the weakest animal welfare standards by a range of groups, including the Animal Welfare Institute and Consumer Reports. Farm Forward says the certification “largely fails to improve conditions beyond industry conventions.”

One Health Certified is the subject of even more criticism. While its name suggests otherwise, the certification is not affiliated with the One Health Commission, a consortium that works on food system issues with an emphasis on connections between human, animal, and environmental health—although the commission’s executive director, Cheryl Stroud, told Civil Eats the program “shares a common goal” with the commission.

Instead, One Health Certified is administered by an institute based at Iowa State University. But Mountaire, the country’s sixth-largest poultry company and one that has been the target of animal rights groups investigations in the past, applied for the trademark and is currently the only company using the certification. In a 2020 webinar, Mountaire Director of Technical Marketing G. Donald Ritter was introduced as having worked on the certification. “The one thing you want a label to do is to reduce consumer concerns with buying your product,” he said, while explaining the marketing power of certification.

Brian Ronholm, the director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said he often points to One Health Certified as a good example of a certification that is meaningless. He describes it as “essentially a participation trophy for normal [factory-scale] operations.”

Across the spectrum of certifications, the report points to the fact that none completely eliminate several practices consumers may find inhumane—breeding fast-growing animals in a way that often impacts their health, immediately separating dairy calves from their mothers, and culling male chicks in the egg industry. (United Egg Producers pledged to eliminate the latter practice in U.S. egg production by 2020, but has so far failed to do so.)

Not even Animal Welfare Approved, run by the independent nonprofit A Greener World, addresses those issues. However, it does stand out in the report (and in many other evaluations of welfare labels) as having the most rigorous standards by far. Most significantly, it is the only certification in the report that prohibits raising animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where they are confined and in close proximity. DeCoriolis said that point is crucial, because consumers increasingly see CAFO production as anathema to animal welfare.

“Public sentiment is shifting strongly against industrial animal agriculture, and at that same moment, at this critical juncture where this shift in public perception is happening, the [other] certifications are now playing a role in retarding that progress on the kind of reforms that would be meaningful for farms,” said deCoriolis. “They’re telling the public, ‘We are humanely raised. We know that you care about these issues’ . . . and they’re further obfuscating the realities on their operations.”

Questioning Global Animal Partnership

At a Whole Foods in Baltimore on a busy weeknight in January, refrigerated packages of store-brand turkey and chicken bore stickers marked with GAP’s “Animal Welfare Certified” logo, suggesting to shoppers that the birds had been treated better than conventional farm animals.

But GAP certification spans a broad, five-step spectrum—ranging from a “base” level to a level at which animals spend their entire lives on a farm—and the generic labels did not indicate at which level the meat was certified. That means it’s possible the meat came from fast-growing birds confined in a CAFO—and given slightly more space than non-GAP-certified birds, but no outdoor access.

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This loophole is a problem, says Farm Forward. And after years of participation on the GAP board, founder and CEO Aaron Gross publicly stepped down last fall “in protest” of the way the organization had changed.

GAP Step 1 ham benefiting from the halo effect at Whole Foods Market. (Photo courtesy of Farm Forward)

GAP Step 1 ham benefiting from the halo effect at Whole Foods Market. (Photo courtesy of Farm Forward)

“GAP is no longer a tool for change, but is increasingly a marketing scheme functioning to benefit massive corporations,” he wrote on the organization’s website at the time. The Farm Forward report followed at the end of December, and while many would expect its criticisms of many of the aforementioned certifications, its criticisms of GAP, long hailed as a stronger system for advancing animal welfare, are more surprising.

“Of course, change is always incremental, and if we thought that GAP’s commitment to continuous improvement was meaningful . . . it might be different,” deCoriolis said. He also referred to what the report calls the “halo effect” created even by more rigorous, tiered standards like Certified Humane and GAP and pointed to a recent class action lawsuit filed early this year against Diestel Turkey Ranch as an example.

Diestel raises slower-growing turkeys on pasture at its Sonora, California Ranch using regenerative practices. It was the first turkey producer to achieve GAP’s highest level of certification, 5+, meaning that animals live on pasture year-round with no physical alterations. But less than 1 percent of the turkeys the company sells come from that ranch and meet that level of certification.

“More than 99 percent of Diestel’s birds are not GAP 5-rated and some are not GAP rated at all,” the suit alleges, stating that the vast majority of the rest come from CAFOs that are not significantly different from the industry standard.

However, Diestel won a prior lawsuit brought by animal rights group DxE that accused the company of false advertising. The judge in that case found that the company provided significantly improved conditions for its birds at various GAP certification levels including the basic level.

“[Diestel’s] turkeys [are provided] a level of care and attention the vast majority of turkey producers never attain,” the judge stated. Turkey farmer and co-owner Heidi Diestel told Civil Eats that “birds that are not GAP Step 5 are clearly labeled with their corresponding GAP Step rating.”

GAP’s leadership also strongly defends its certification system as resulting in meaningful, ongoing change. “As farm animal welfare science advances and practical solutions develop, GAP standards continuously evolve and improve over time, becoming more comprehensive and including additional requirements,” Executive Director Anne Malleau told Civil Eats in an email.

She pointed to a new initiative, called the Better Chicken Project, that will affect 100 percent of GAP-certified broiler chickens and will address “the suffering of birds genetically selected for rapid growth in a way that has never been done before,” by using welfare-specific research to inform breeding.

Some animal rights groups say even the lowest standards allow more companies and farms to sign on, meaning more small improvements across the board.

She also disputed Farm Forward’s claim that producers tend to come in at lower levels of certification and stay there, pointing out that the number of pasture-raised Step 4 cattle has increased from 38 to 70 percent of the total cattle the group certifies since 2012. That growth is partially due the introduction of a program that allows farmers and ranchers to feed cattle grain while keeping them on pasture.

Finally, Malleau said that GAP created the generic label without a step number not to confuse consumers, but to support sellers who were concerned about the availability of raw materials and would be forced to update their packaging if a temporary shortage happened and they had to source meat from a supplier certified at a lower step.

“By its very design, our 5-Step program is inclusive of a wide variety of production systems and has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of millions of animals at all steps,” added Malleau.

Contested Value of Incremental Change

Not all animal rights groups see even the weakest welfare labels as promoting humanewashing. As some see it, lower standards allow more companies and farms to sign on, meaning more small improvements across the board.

Temple Grandin, a renowned animal scientist whose approach to welfare improvements fits into this realm, is on American Humane’s board. The point of its certification, she told the New York Times, is to “work with large-scale commercial producers so that they have at least some standards.”

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), emphasized that many animal welfare certifications in the report do ban practices like caging and crating and provide third-party on-farm audits. The organization has its own food label guide and endorses three certifications: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and GAP’s levels 2 and above.

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“There is no perfect welfare certification, they each have room for improvement, and we are working to help strengthen their standards, but the certifications we recognize do afford meaningfully better lives for vulnerable animals and clarity for consumers, when the industry currently offers neither,” the statement read. “To criticize a small but growing group of farmers, businesses, and consumers whose efforts and investments are positively impacting hundreds of millions of animals, when billions are still suffering in truly hellish conditions, amounts to a trap named in Farm Forward’s report: letting perfect be the enemy of the good.”

DeCoriolis acknowledged that challenge, and the report explicitly gives some of the certifications credit for relieving the suffering of many animals. It questions, however, whether the improved practices should be dubbed “humane” and if they prevent bigger changes from being made.

“We think that the marginally better is being entrenched in ways that will hinder, in the long-term, the opportunity for an alternative market to be developed, for a meaningfully different, non-factory farmed movement to be built,” he said.

Certifications as Marketing Tools

While some consumers may feel duped, Amanda Hitt, the director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, has never expected animal welfare labels to cause wholesale changes to modern agriculture.

“The industry’s motivation is not to protect animals but to profit. Labeling is advertising. Certification is advertising.”

“Anyone who’s watched the organic movement or the environmental movement knows that this is exactly how it works,” said Hitt. “You should be aware that the industry’s motivation is not to protect animals but to profit. Labeling is advertising. Certification is advertising.”

For the same reason, GAP was always going to be a marketing tool for Whole Foods, she added. “GAP was an attempt to work with industry,” she said. “Once industry signed on, that’s a sure sign that they’re going to profit.”

Figure: Animal Certifications on Underconsidered Welfare Issues. (Chart courtesy of Farm Forward)

Chart courtesy of Farm Forward

That’s not to say that corporations are filled with evildoers, that some aren’t doing more than others to make real change, or that animals’ lives aren’t improved along the way, Hitt emphasized. In fact, she says, producers and executives are doing what their employers require of them when they make as few expensive changes as possible to sell more products—they’re watching their bottom line. Hitt believes that certifications do start conversations and get the issue in front of the public in a new way, which can contribute to larger, long-term course corrections within the food system.

So what should a shopper concerned with animal welfare do in front of the meat case?

“As a rule, consumers should view these types of label claims with skepticism, and they should closely scrutinize them,” Consumer Reports’ Ronholm said. “Most are trying to convey a value that doesn’t really exist while charging you a premium price.”

Rating systems like Consumer Reports’ Food Label Guide and the Farm Forward report can help consumers evaluate each certification on its own based on all of the available information. But in the end, careful consideration at the grocery store may not be the best tool to improve farm animals’ lives.

“Part of this is a broader grappling of the American public with [the idea] that we can consume our way to the kind of country or world we want to live in. Personally, I don’t think that’s true,” deCoriolis said. “Consumer actions are critically important . . . but ultimately, changing industrial animal agriculture is a choice we have to make as a public, at a level of governance and regulation.”

Lisa Held

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many additional publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Lisa
    Check out the movie “At the Fork” on Amazon if you actually want to learn about labeling, GAP practices, and which certifications are meaningful. The labels that are at Whole Foods are a giant step in the right direction with no crates or cages. If you saw what regular non-certified looks like in comparison you’d probably be appalled by the conditions. Also, a larger certifier like GAP with lots of farmers paying dues can afford to visit their suppliers and make sure they are meeting standards regularly. I really appreciate that they allow a farmer to transition away from CAFO style practices incrementally since it’s incredibly expensive to make massive changes to a farming operation. I’d like to point out that when switching to humane farming the yields end up being higher for each step and the animals are a lot less sick so the whole process ends up encouraging the farmer to make continual improvements. The incentives are also there to make a better profit based on the higher GAP Step welfare rating since you can charge more for the product. There’s more than meets the eye here. I agree with the sentiment “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good!” these animals are living beings that deserve better than the standard CAFO!

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