Consumers opposed to factory farming want to know more about the animals we eat. How were they raised? Did they live on a pasture? What did they eat? Where were they slaughtered? The ultimate problem with these questions, important as they are, is that it’s generally not in any producer’s interest to provide complete answers. The labels that describe animal products today thus rely on an industry-influenced lexicon that salves our conscience but obscures the harsh reality of raising, killing, and eating animals.Duplicity is especially prevalent in the terms used to describe space. “Cage free” has an anti-industrial ring to it. However, typical cage free farms pack thousands of chickens (12,000 is normal) into drab enclosures providing 1-2 square feet of floor space per bird. The term “cage free” includes no restrictions on stocking density. “Free range” is much the same, with the exception that it requires the “grow out facility” (barn) to provide theoretical access to the outdoors. The vast majority of free-range birds spend their truncated lives trapped in the facility’s interior. Birds that do make it outside are likely to discover a sad patch of mud rather than adequate space to behave as chickens. Industry downplays these conditions, as well as the fact that male chicks born in breeding facilities that supply hens to free range and cage free egg farms are dumped alive into grinders.
Similarly unpleasant conditions also hide behind “welfare approved” labels. These increasingly popular designations claim to provide a more comprehensive assessment of a farm animal’s experience. The reality, however, is a bit different. American Humane Certified is a label run by Tim Amlaw, an “agriculture industry veteran” who came to welfare certification from the cattle business. Meat stamped as American Humane Certified might sound very Old McDonald, but the label (in some but not all instances) allows cows to be fattened in feed yards, pigs to be secured in gestation stalls, and chickens to never set foot in a pasture. Certified Humane, a competing label, imposes considerably tougher standards, but still permits animals to be slaughtered in industrial abattoirs (without limits on transportation time), castrated without anesthesia (before 2 months of age), mutilated with septum rings (to prevent pigs from rooting), and restricted to a life indoors (for chickens).
The welfare label that consumers are most likely to have seen comes from Global Animal Partnership. GAP standards, originally designed by Whole Foods (then spun-off to GAP), offer a tiered rating system (1 to 5+). Every ounce of Whole Foods pork, chicken, and beef is currently GAP certified. Sounds impressive. But there’s a catch: Farmers need only meet level 1 requirements to carry the label and break the coveted Whole Foods barrier.
GAP standards for pigs are certainly respectable by industry standards. However, one can see why the terms “welfare” and “humane” are omitted from the label’s name. GAP’s level 1 rating does not require outdoor access or density restrictions within barns; it allows septum rings and ear notching; it does not demand air quality standards or environmental enrichment; and its stipulations don’t extend to the slaughter phase. GAP should be commended for establishing a rating system that encourages farmers to gradually seek higher welfare standards. It’s distressingly unclear, though, what economic incentives are in place for farmers to do so.
Leading animal advocates aren’t impressed. Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, admires the intentions behind welfare labeling, claiming that the labels “speak to our aspirations,” but he also describes them as “marketing efforts designed to help farms sell products.” Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, calls welfare labels “laughable,” “a betrayal of public trust,” and a “cheapening of language.” Heather Lange, director of the Purpose Group International, a Canadian-based non-profit that once offered the most humane welfare certification in North America, moved out of certifications because “despite the best of intentions, labels have done little to break the stranglehold of industrial farming.” PGI found ineffective enforcement of label claims, widespread cheating among farm marketing groups, and the idea that current labels have improved the lives of animals suggestive more than real. Many people I interviewed spoke of “welfare washing.”
In their flexibility and variability, these labels, as Lange suggests, may encourage a race to the bottom. Take the case of Niman Ranch, long considered the paragon of humanely raised meat and, to this day, a company whose treatment of farm animals far exceeds conventional standards. Niman was once certified by American Welfare Approved, one of the nation’s strictest certifiers. However, as Niman expanded, AWA “tightened up the rules,” according to Niman spokesperson Jeff Tripician. At issue was the use of the “Swedish bedding system,” an indoor arrangement that provides sows access to individual feeding stalls and ample material for bedding. Niman wanted its farmers to use them. AWA, however, discouraged this form of confinement. As AWA’s Program Director Andrew Gunther wrote in an e-mail, “the welfare of pigs is at its highest when the animals are kept outdoors.” Whatever the pros and cons of the Swedish bedding system, the upshot is that Niman and AWA no longer work together.
Officials at both organizations are reluctant to discuss the details of their split. What we do know, though, is that Niman eventually turned to GAP, whose more accommodating rating system better suited Niman’s expansion. When I asked Tripician what incentives were in place for level 1 GAP producers to ascend the ratings ladder, he stated, “we don’t ask them to be rated higher.” Paul Willis, who directs Niman’s pork division, acknowledged that the lack of incentives to move from 1 to 5 was a weakness that needs to be addressed.
Labeling agencies are run by people devoted to improving the lives of farm animals. By demanding greater accountability on the issue of animal welfare, one could argue that certifiers are pushing the envelope of transparency. If they push hard enough, perhaps mainstream consumers will peer into even the most humane farm and conclude that killing an animal that does not want to die isn’t worth eating food we don’t need. Miyun Park, director of GAP, told me she’d be thrilled it if her job did not exist.
Of course, this would be a generous interpretation. It seems more likely that producers of animal products don’t want anyone to witness the guts of what they do, consumers are happy to see only what they want to see, and an array of wonderful sounding welfare labels are available to make everyone feel just a little bit better about this corrupt bargain.Copyright belongs to James McWilliams, www.james-mcwillaims.com. This is not identical to the piece published in Harper’s Magazine.