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What’s Hiding Behind Our Food Labels? Deceit.

Andrew Gunter and Animal Welfare food label. Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunter and Animal Welfare food label. Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.

As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.

Meaningless claims

While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.

The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would  display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.

Nothing natural about it

Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.

“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.

When food labels that say organic aren’t

Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet  an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute  investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.

There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.

So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.

Top photo composite:

Andrew Gunther and Animal Welfare Approved label. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Andrew Gunther is program director at Animal Welfare Approved, a nonprofit program that audits, certifies, supports and promotes family farmers raising their animals under the highest welfare standards, outdoors on pastures or ranges. The AWA standards have been rated "most stringent" by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.  

  • Fredericka 1·1·13

    Very good article. All I would add is to check out the “locals”. By doing so, I have sources for free range chickens, eggs and vegetables. One son provides me with fish and venison. As for “natural” products? Bee stings are natural, but not so good for you 🙂

  • Terra 1·1·13

    With the proliferation of fabulous-sounding labels, it’s good to know that there’s one, Animal Welfare Approved, that actually means something. It’s even better to find a nearby farm you can visit and see how their animals live. Check out to find farms near you, and resolve to buy from your local farmers in 2013 and beyond!

  • Leslie 1·1·13

    Seriously, this is so disconcerting.
    When is the government going to be held accountable for allowing misleading and erroneous information (okay, lies) to continue? After watching Food, Inc. and Food Matters I have become even more focused and particular about the food I buy, but this presents an even deeper level of omission and deception that takes advantage of unwitting or less savvy consumers, and I consider myself to be pretty well informed. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen the AWA labeling on most of the products I have been buying at Whole Foods.
    Thank you for this information. My education continues!

  • Anne Mendelson 1·1·13

    I hope you’ll return to this subject early and often, and say something about milk production and the conditions in which many if not most dairy cows are kept.

  • Marisa 1·2·13

    Also check out We are an independent family owned company that rigorously analyzes over 100,000+ products on supermarket shelves to help consumers buy better. We take animal welfare, fair labor practices, organic growing practices and processing methodology into our research.

  • Wendy Baroli 1·2·13

    as a small farmer – my suggestion Know your farmer, know your food. Transparency happens when YOU take responsibility for your life this includes your food. You know your personal trainer, your dog walker your house keeper the mechanic that looks after your car – what about the Person who grows your food. The government is not the baby sitter they do a bad job at it and cost us all dollars we do not have to spare for a crap job. Personal responsibility requires asking tough questions and yes, it may not be as easy as the one stop Walmart shop but – if you really want to make a change – and you really care about what is in your food support local small farmers that welcome you to see how your food is grown and how the animals you consume are cared for and if you cannot get satisfaction ask yourself the tough question. Do I really need this?

  • Rebecca 1·2·13

    Consumers should make an effort to actually visit the farms rather than rely on any label – even AWA. Just like “Organic” or “Certified Humane” the label is only as legitimate as the person filling out the paperwork. I’ve been to farms that were certified as “Grassfed” where the cows come trotting up to the rustle of feedbags. And some “Pastured” farms where access to pasture is required, but there is nothing but dirt inside the paddocks. Even, AWA allows animals to be fed GMO corn, GMO soy, & bread wastes but forbids pigs to eat fish or eggs. Many animals raised on certified “humane” farms exhibit fear and distrust. You can’t see that on a label – you can only see it at the farm. Stickers on packages will not protect animals or keep your family healthy. The only way to truly know your food is to go to the farms where it is produced. Invest a little time – take the kids for an afternoon drive in the country. Your family’s health and the welfare of livestock is absolutely worth it!

  • Andrew Gunther 1·2·13

    Thank you all for taking the time to reply. Visiting farms is a tough one AWA farmers receive an annual audit by a highly trained inspector. As much as I support direct knowledge of a farm two issues arise. One does everyone know what to look for? and Two can everyone get to the farm or do they want to? At that time a label can be the eyes and ears of the consensus consumer. I did write a piece on this exact subject and its why I campaign for honest labeling.

    If you are visiting a farm print off a copy of our standards to help ask the right questions or better still ask them to get an AWA audit. I know I don’t know enough about mechanics to go inspect my car but I know a man who does:)

  • Kelley 1·3·13

    There is a third issue with visiting farms, often small farmers do not have the time to dedicate to random farm visits / tours. Even with as much transparency as we provide our customers, many times people ask to tour the farm or just come by and visit and we cannot accommodate every request, as much as we would like to (although we do have tours and events on the farm several times per year). Every farm tour takes several hours away from our daily activities, which on a small farm are often round the clock and definitely round the calendar.

    Transparency is the key, and a label you can trust like AWA. Even if you can’t visit the farm, be informed and do your homework and ask a lot of questions. Sending an email with questions about food, shelter, slaughter and anything else a consumer wants to know is something we can respond to when we have time. Most small farms want you to ask questions. They are proud of what they are doing and want to share that with their customers. If they aren’t, spend your money elsewhere.

    By local if you can. The fewer hands on your product before you consume it the better. By from AWA sources if you want meat you can trust. Know your farmer, know your food.

  • katherine leiner 1·4·13

    I am so happy you have written about this and included the “free copy” of the welfare approved food labeling. We want to believe what we read on the back of packaging and sometime I even have to use a magnifying glass in order to decipher the small print. But as you have pointed out, knowing what they words mean in the world of food is utterly important. And might I add, if we can know our farmers and the farms from where their food comes from, is even better. Thanks for this piece!

  • Eartha 1·25·13

    Another point is that for urban dwellers there is no farm nearby to visit.. the labels are all they have.

  • Amanda Yoder 1·25·13

    My other concern is how many have a USDA organic seal, the proper claim but aren’t actually being certified as organic. Years ago there was a news report of lots of QAI certified organic products at Whole Foods that QAI said it never inspected! I buy local what I can, but when I pay extra for organic, I just want it to truly be organic!