Animal welfare certificates aim to improve the living conditions of animals farmed for meat and dairy, but are they misleading the public?

Earlier this year, a new food label came to market partly in response to growing concern for animal welfare among consumers. It’s called One Health Certified, approved for use on chicken and turkey products to demonstrate “responsible animal care.” There’s just one problem: It’s virtually meaningless.

“In addition to being confusing and misleading,” write Brian Ronholm and Charlotte Vallaeys, staff members at Consumer Reports, a nonprofit organization that works with consumers to promote truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace, “the label represents the equivalent of a participation trophy for normal operations.”

Although it’s widely recognized as the worst of the bunch, One Health Certified is only one of several animal welfare certifications that have recently come under fire for rubber stamping factory farming practices. The others span a wide range: some are produced by trade industry bodies (like the egg industry’s UEP certification and the dairy industry’s FARM certification) which creates an obvious conflict of interest. Others are problematic in that they don’t address many of the biggest welfare concerns (such as cage confinement) and/or standards are loosely interpreted/enforced by their governing body—this includes such certifications as American Humane Certified and USDA Organic.

“Certifications today enrich corporations that profit from factory farming and shield it (and themselves) from criticism,” explains Andrew deCoriolis, Executive Director of Farm Forward, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing animal suffering. “Some real if modest welfare improvements for animals are occurring, but it is dubious that welfare certifications are in any way driving these changes and [it’s] beyond question that they are confusing and deceiving consumers.”

While today’s welfare certification programs do not ensure that all animals raised for food have decent lives, some of them do offer meaningful improvements. These include certifications created and managed by well-meaning advocacy-like groups, such as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Certified Humane (CH), and Global Animal Partnership (GAP). All chickens raised in facilities that meet the AWA, CH, or GAP standards have more space than chickens in standard factory farms. Their environments are enriched to provide at least some stimulation, and routine antibiotic use is prohibited. They ban cages, crates, various painful procedures or methods of performing alteration like castration, and set guidelines around handling at transport and other stressful events. And this is just the baseline.

Welfare increases as one goes up the tiers or is designated with qualifiers. Chickens in facilities that meet the GAP (level 4 or above) and CH Pasture Raised, as well as AWA, for example, spend their lives on pasture freely interacting with other individuals and expressing their natural behaviors. That’s a huge animal welfare win, worthy of celebration.

That said, it’s true that even the absolute best certifications don’t completely eliminate animal suffering. All animals living in certified, improved conditions still experience some level of pain and stress. Hundreds of millions of male baby chicks are “culled” (i.e., placed on a conveyor belt and dropped into a meat grinder) regardless of the living conditions of their parents, because hatcheries aren’t covered by the certification. Most chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so quickly that they experience skeletal and cardiovascular dysfunction. Dairy cows are separated from their mothers, often within the first 24 hours of their lives. For the most part, the animals are not living in the bucolic fields consumers may hope for when they buy these products.

But even if one considers the meaningful improvements some certifications ensure, like providing enriched environments and outdoor access, it’s hard to know whether those improvements are actually being implemented on every certified farm. Auditing and verification processes are major concerns for certification skeptics. Certifications like AWA and CH are essentially “second party” audited—they hire, train, and oversee auditors directly who go to farms and verify that the relevant standards are met. That means the organization that stands to benefit financially from the outcome of the certification is also the one making the decision, and that creates an obvious conflict of interest. Additionally, CH audits most—but not all—of the farms that are certified. Some belong to what are called “Producer Groups,” a collective of sorts that provides shared benefits to members. Among those in Producer Groups, CH only audits ten percent of farms in a brand in any given year.

Due to this loophole, 90 percent of these farms are never visited in a given year. (Among those that aren’t audited, someone from within the company is still required to conduct the audit and provide documentation to CH, but this of course has inherent biases). For those that are visited, the audit consists of one site visit in which a trained auditor spends up to a day going through a checklist of standards developed by animal welfare scientists. Along the way they check the animals for lameness and any nutritional deficiencies or ailments, and rate them on a scoring system. They review records farmers are required to keep for the year on mortalities, illnesses, etc. They measure spaces, and examine the quality of the outdoor space or pasture.

Animal Welfare Approved auditors do visit every farm, every year, but no matter how thorough an audit is, a lot can happen in a year. G.A.P. is “third party” audited—they hire a firm (Earth Claims) that handles all the audits, auditor training, etc. G.A.P. does require that all farms in a brand have an on-farm audit, but only every 15 months. (There’s a welfare-focused reason for this: If you visit in a rotating way through different seasons, you see how they’re housed indoors, outdoors and in-between—how they handle the heat, cold, etc.—rather than under the same seasonal set of conditions.) In the case of chickens, that means that an auditor is reviewing roughly one out of every five flocks of birds. While the point of an audit may not be to check every individual animal, it underscores how much can be missed during such a long span of time.

Although certifiers could use monitoring technology to ensure compliance with standards, there are reasons why that isn’t feasible. But maybe the possibility of an audit—no matter how infrequent—is enough to make most farms comply. (Then again, maybe not.) Farms that are certified AWA, CH, or GAP that don’t pass the audit either must make the required changes and be re-audited or risk losing their certification; if it’s an egregious issue—and those are outlined in the standards—they automatically fail and have their seal revoked.

Another common concern raised about welfare certifications is that they mislead—rather than inform—the public.

There is truth to this concern. Even the best certifications do seem to give the public the impression that animals are treated better than they actually are, a phenomenon that some advocates call “humanewashing.” “Like greenwashing, humane-washing is a type of whitewashing, which is a metaphor for communications that gloss over or obscure unpleasant, negatively connoted facts,” writes legal scholar Saskia Stucki. “Based on common definitions of greenwashing, humane-washing can be defined as the dissemination of false or deceptive information by companies so as to promote the perception that its products are animal-friendly…” Indeed, it seems unlikely to me that consumers understand that Certified Humane and G.A.P. Step 1 and 2 both allow pigs to be raised in concrete barns in large-scale operations where animals don’t go outside.

On top of that, there’s what deCoriolis refers to as the “halo effect,” which occurs when producers utilize certifications to give the impression that the most rigorous levels of certification are representative of all certified products. Consider a consumer marketing study that evaluated Diestel, the largest turkey supplier to Whole Foods. The survey asked consumers to review Diestel’s marketing materials and answer a few simple questions. The results suggested that, immediately after reading Diestel’s materials more than 85 percent of those surveyed thought all Diestels turkeys were raised primarily outdoors, when in reality, many of Diestel’s turkeys are raised primarily indoors.

This, of course, is a problem. Not only is it generally unethical to mislead consumers, but, in this case, misleading consumers could cause them to purchase more meat products. One recent study found that when people were told meat was certified for its humane treatment of animals, they no longer felt guilty and were less likely to feel the need to justify their meal choice. On the flip side, a November 2018 survey conducted by YouGov reported that 63 percent of Americans said that if they found out a company had a bad reputation for animal welfare, it would make them less likely to buy meat processed by that company. So if consumers knew the truth—that most animals from certified farms still have pretty horrible lives—they might choose a veggie burger instead.

However, there’s an argument to be made that certifications alone are not the cause of consumer confusion. After all, meat producers can mislead consumers about their animal welfare practices with or without welfare certification programs. Producers of non-certified meat products are free to use terms like “humanely raised” and “grass-fed,” which aren’t regulated by the USDA. Meat companies can simply supply their own definitions of these terms. By contrast, producers of certified products—which represent a tiny percent of the marketplace—must meet standards that—while they may be unsatisfactory—are at least well-defined. While labels may lure some consumers into a false sense of complacency, they also offer consumers the ability to do some research, look up a label, and learn exactly what it means. Without the labels, the conditions on most industrial farms would remain completely opaque to consumers.

Critics also point out that certifications are not an effective incentive for meat producers to raise or maintain higher welfare standards.

The ability to use a meaningless welfare certification like One Health Certified—instead of a meaningful one like AWA, CH, and GAP, does seem to at least partially remove producers’ incentives to make meaningful changes to the way they raise animals. If a meat company knows it can make small tweaks to their farms—ones that don’t significantly change the cost of production—and sell their products for a premium, that company is unlikely to make the more meaningful changes that actually increase the cost of production. “As a result, livestock producers who genuinely provide high animal welfare standards cannot achieve a price premium and have no incentive to continue their practice,” explains legal expert Nicole Negowetti.

But this too isn’t an inherent problem with certification programs in general. The issue lies with the widespread availability of meaningless labels and the inability of consumers to tell the difference. If we acknowledge that public opinion and consumer behavior can pressure farms and food companies to make meaningful changes to their husbandry practices or purchasing, then it’s essential that the public have a clear understanding of what each certification means in practice.

Then again, that’s a lot to ask consumers—for them to have to do their homework, or to reach out to the certifications directly and ask them questions. (Consider that I spent many hours researching for this piece and it’s still difficult for me to keep track of all the various labels and the particulars of them.)

But while creating that level of awareness won’t be easy, consumers do want to know the welfare standards behind the products they purchase. And they even seem willing to pay more for higher-welfare brands. Indeed, two-thirds of respondents to a survey indicated they would purchase welfare certified meat even if it meant a modest increase in price. While we haven’t yet seen this behavior borne out in consumer trends—the vast majority of meat purchased is from factory farms—it still seems indicative of a shifting psychology around the importance of animal welfare.

So, yes, there are problems with welfare certifications, even the best among them. But if we abandon the entire concept, animals will continue to suffer under entirely obscure conditions, and consumers will have no means of asserting their preference for higher-welfare products. Writing off certifications completely seems like it would be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Instead we should address the problems with certifications directly, by raising the standards over time and by demanding clarity as consumers. Or at least try. Given all that is at stake for so many animals, we can’t afford not to.

Original source: https://www.forbes.com