Compassionate But Confusing Labels
When I buy poultry, I always reach for the free-range variety. I often refer to it as "chicken with a college degree," because, in my imagination, that's ultimately where we're headed. We won't be satisfied until all the animals we kill and eat have led a long and fulfilling life. And in my daydream world that includes an education and a semester abroad in Paris.
Despite my snarky nickname for it, I buy free-range poultry out of a combination of ethical considerations--and, well, baser ones. (I think they taste better.)
But even with the best intensions, it's easy to be confused by such labels. There are so many of them and now
Whole Foods Market is planning to add another one, this time on meat, that reads "animal compassionate."
What the heck does that mean?
Whole Foods says the standards would require "environments and conditions that support the animal's physical, emotional, and behavioral needs to an even higher level" than the grocer already demands. To earn the supermarket chain's "natural" label, meat suppliers already must avoid using antibiotics. They also can't use supplemental growth hormones with lamb, veal calves and cattle. And they must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture standard for "natural" by containing no artificial additives or preservatives.
Whole Foods' "animal compassionate" and label will join a host of other ethical food labels, most of which are defined and policed by a patchwork of government agencies and animal welfare groups.
Let's run through the list, shall we?
The first part of the explanation that follows comes to us courtesy of The Straight Dope, which tackled the subject of egg labeling.
Cage-free eggs is not defined by the USDA. It generally means the hens laying the eggs aren't kept in cages, but they may still live in overcrowded conditions.
Free-roaming and free-range , which applies to eggs and poultry, are defined by the USDA. It means producers have to demonstrate to the feds that the poultry "has been allowed access to the outside," a.k.a. a door that is open part of the time. However, the USDA has no criteria for the size of the "range."
Free-farmed is another egg designation. It's trademarked by the American Humane Society which requires the hens to be free of hunger, unnecessary fear and pain. The AHA inspects farms annually to make sure they meet AHA's standards.
The certified humane label was created by Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit based in Herndon whose partners include the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States. It can be applied to eggs, dairy, meat or poultry products. The standard is based on these principles: "allowing animals to engage in natural behaviors, ... raising animals in sufficient space and gentle handling to limit stress, ... and making sure they have ample fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones." As with the free-farmed label, producers have to be certified by HFAC and are subjected to regular inspections.
Finally, the organic standard, which is defined by the federal government, doesn't allow cages for hens laying eggs and prohibits cattle from being penned inside all the time.
Don't be surprised if local government starts to play a bigger role in the ethical labeling of food. Last month, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward One) introduced the Increased Consumer Information for the Sale of Eggs Act of 2006, which would require grocers in the city to disclose which eggs have come from hens confined in tiny wire cages.
Around the same time, the D. C. Attorney General's office and AGs in 16 states reached an agreement with United Egg Producers ("UEP") to resolve allegations that the trade association misled consumers with its "animal care certified" label on eggs.
The AGs concluded that the logo misled consumers about the quality of UEP's standards of care, which allowed the forced molting of hens, confinement of birds in crowded wire cages, and de-beaking of chicks. In November 2005, UEP discontinued its "Animal Care Certified" logo and adopted its current "United Egg Producers Certified" logo.
Do you find ethical food labels helpful? Or between keeping your eyes peeled for trans fats and sodium, do they just make shopping even more confusing? Would you rather see a single standard? If so, who should enforce it?
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