FOOD & DRINK
10/27/2014 07:00 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

What Exactly Does 'Humanely Raised' Mean?

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With the endless flow of food media (guilty as charged) and food marketing that's showing no sign of losing steam, certain food words continue to suffer from overuse and in turn lose their meaning. A recent settlement between Perdue Farms and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has thrown one commonly used and misunderstood food term into the spotlight: "humanely raised." The HSUS claimed that Perdue's use of the label "humanely raised" was misleading. So what does this term really mean?

There is no legal definition for the term "humanely raised." The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for upholding the accuracy of food labels, and while it defines (if incompletely in places) a host of food terms on its website, it does not explain what "humanely raised" means.

The government has a vague provision for "humane" slaughtering and handling, but it focuses on end-of-life treatment, not raising the animal. The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act deems that "the slaughtering of livestock and the handling of livestock in connection with slaughter shall be carried out only by humane methods." FSIS describes humane slaughtering and handling as "rapid and effective" by, among other methods that meet this requirement, "a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means." The agency addresses the act of slaughter here, but doesn't have a clear cut definition of handling -- of what it means to raise animals humanely. With no legal definition for "humanely raised" and an incomplete description of "humane slaughter and handling" that focuses on end-of-life treatment, not treatment during an animal's life, how are consumers to make informed decisions when buying meat and poultry?

Furthermore, the approval process for labels has been called into question. A report called "Label Confusion: How 'Humane' And 'Sustainable' Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Consumers" released last spring from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) found that in many label claims that the institute investigated, the USDA merely approved the label based on the given company's word. Consumers are left to wonder not only what "humanely raised" means, but if it appears on a label, if it was even properly verified.

This isn't to say that there's been no progress in humane treatment of livestock and poultry. Author and animal welfare activist Temple Grandin, whose Animal Welfare Audit is an industry standard, doesn't view handling as her gravest issue anymore. According to Modern Farmer, fast food giants like McDonald's and Burger King comply with her audit requirements, and 50 percent of livestock in the U.S. and Canada benefit from equipment invented by Grandin. Still, if FSIS is failing to thoroughly verify labels, the advances in handling and slaughtering the country has seen, thanks to activists like Grandin, will all be for naught.

The bottom line is that the term "humanely raised" is a complicated, multifaceted one. Different animals need different measures to lead safe and healthy lives. Moreover, different people have different opinions on what "humane" treatment looks like. Some people value the act of letting animals roam and feed on grass, for example, while others don't. Of course, PETA says "There is no such thing as humane meat," which only highlights how complicated the term is in the first place.

If companies continue to use vague terms like "humanely raised" on their labels, the USDA should not only define it but also commit to verifying it. The lawsuit HSUS filed against Perdue ended with the company removing "humanly raised" from Perdue chicken. While it's a great step toward eliminating confusing or misleading labels, it would be even better if consumers could choose between labels that they could understand and trust.

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