Do food labels create confusion about animal welfare?

Posted: 10 July 2023 | | No comments yet

According to a team of academics there is ongoing consumer “confusion about food labels related to animal welfare”.

meat label

A new report carried out by academics at Perdue University has claimed that food labels “offer consumer choices but also confusion about animal welfare”.

“There’s some confusion about food labels related to animal welfare,” said Purdue University’s Marisa Erasmus, Associate Professor of animal sciences and a specialist in animal behaviour and welfare.

“It’s typically up to the consumer to do their homework and figure out what these different claims mean. Labels do provide consumers with a choice because, in theory, you can choose products that align with your personal and social values.”

Animal-based food products come packaged with a variety of information labels. These can include organic, natural, grass-fed, humanely raised and pasture-raised.

However, in June 2023 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a “multi-step effort” to strengthen the validity of animal-raising claims. Following this announcement, Erasmus and her colleagues at Perdue University have said that they “will be watching to see what additional documentation animal food producers will need to provide regarding food label claims”.

“In general producers need to submit certain claims about their food products to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for approval. The FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) regulates certain food labels and claims on meat and poultry products. Some claims require that producers submit documentation before approval is granted,” explained the team.

Erasmus explained that a key point of confusion is which claims are associated with animal welfare certification organisations that use third-party verification. “Producers that work with one of these organisations can put the latter’s seal on their products to indicate that the animals were raised according to certain standards,” continued Erasmus.

“Typically, those standards are intended to offer higher animal welfare than what you would see with a conventional product. But a lot of consumers don’t necessarily know what these different seals mean. And the absence of a label claim does not mean that food animals were raised inhumanely.”

Overall, the team at Perdue University have observed that other labels “have more to do with how people perceive the health benefits of a product and do not relate as much to the animal’s welfare”.

Erasmus noted that there is a willingness from consumers to make sustainable, healthy choices, but she was keen to point out that “just because an animal product has an organic label on it doesn’t always mean that animal had a better life than an animal that wasn’t raised organically”.

Antimicrobial resistance: It hasn’t gone away

The team went on to highlight that USDA regulates organics through the National Organic Program, which offers a label distinct from those provided by other sources, and found that the idea of “no antibiotics added” is another claim that can cause confusion.

“This label is confusing because antibiotics are occasionally used to treat live animals or prevent illness, but antibiotics are not added to meat products,” said the team.

Going forward, the team has said that they are working closely with producers in Indiana (as well as across the US) to support humane animal production practices and conduct research providing guidelines for animal welfare and management.