The recent public outcry around the USDA‘s removal of animal welfare violation records from its website reinforces a clear truth: Americans are united in their opposition to animal cruelty, and they want more – not less – information on how animals are protected in our society.
But when it comes to farm animals, the blocking of vital information – whether on the USDA website or in the form of anti-whistleblower state “ag-gag” bills across the country – doesn’t just happen through government. It also happens in local supermarkets, where information about the treatment of farm animals raised for meat, milk and egg products is actively hidden behind misleading and meaningless food labels.
Consumers Care About Welfare
A recent national survey, commissioned by the ASPCA, found that more than three in four consumers are concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food. Seventy-four percent are paying more attention to the labels that indicate how farm animals were treated than they were just five years ago. Unfortunately, these labels don’t meet consumers’ common sense expectations.
For example, sixty-five percent of consumers we surveyed believe the term “free-range” ensures that the animal spent most of its time in a pasture when, in reality, there is no legal definition of that term for pork, beef or dairy products. For poultry products, the size, duration, and quality of birds’ outdoor experiences on “free range” farms is not defined. In some facilities, these “free-range” chickens spend most of their lives indoors.
More than two-thirds of these consumers also believe the label “cage-free” on a package of chicken or turkey meat means the bird had a “better than average” quality of life. But such a label is pointless because only egg-laying chickens are routinely raised in cages; chickens or turkeys raised for meat are not. Large food companies exploit these labeling loopholes at the expense of animal welfare and consumer awareness.
There are also no federal or state inspectors checking on farm animals’ welfare, despite public assumptions about federal oversight of their treatment. This lack of supervision leaves the vast majority of farm animals living in unacceptable conditions, while farmers raising animals more humanely struggle to stay afloat.
Getting to the Truth
How do we combat these government, regulatory, and public awareness challenges?
Let’s start with consumers, who are ready and willing to become educated on the most meaningful welfare certifications (those backed by rigorous standards, on-farm audits, and strong enforcement), as well as brands, farms, products, and retailers that match their desire for more humanely-raised food products. The ASPCA launched its Shop with Your Heart campaign to help consumers make these connections and voice their demand for better lives for farm animals. The growth of organic and allergy-aware food products show that the consumer voice can be a transformative tool.
Changes must also be made at all points of the supply chain to improve on-farm conditions. This effort takes shape one company at a time, but the cumulative effect can ultimately have an industry-wide impact. In the last six months, we helped guide commitments to higher animal welfare and certification from national restaurant chain Panera, leading meat brand Applegate, and regional distributor Happy Valley Meat Company.
Farms are the front line of this effort, so we’re providing user-friendly resources for farmers who want to transition to higher welfare practices and pursue substantive welfare certifications. In January, in collaboration with Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS), we released the ASPCA/CAFS Farm Animal Welfare Certification Guide, a comprehensive guide for farmers seeking to better understand or obtain animal welfare certification.
Sustaining the Momentum
Clearly, there’s momentum in the farm animal welfare cause, and we hope it keeps advancing. As I expressed here in January, we hope President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, will create and improve standards that protect the over nine billion animals raised for food in the U.S. each year.
That kind of action matches the public’s strong support of animal welfare, makes smart economic sense for food companies and farms, and reinforces compassion as a bona fide American value, though one that is continuously put to the test.
Matthew Bershadker is President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).