The Checkout

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?

By Annys Shin |  October 26, 2006; 7:40 AM ET Consumer News
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I have only just recently started looking for trans fats on labels. What is going on with the fat grams? A product might contain 5 grams of fat, and 3 might be saturated and listed as containing zero trans fats. What are the other two grams? I do look out for partially hydrogenated xyz, and I read recently that if a product has half a gram of t.f. or less it does not have to be listed. I also read that a person should have less than a gram a day. What is correct? Am I stuck with only fruit and vegetables forever if I want to avoid t.F? Are those crackers that say Trans Fat free REALLY t.f. free? I am also trying to keep HFCS out of the house. We are eating very healthfully these days and losing weight, so it's all good, but I would appreciate you clearing this up for me. If there is a column on it, let me know!

Posted by: jane | October 26, 2006 7:44 AM

"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?"

Trans fats and sodium are real issues. The rest will become a relief act for lawyers.

Posted by: Steve | October 26, 2006 8:26 AM

"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?"

Trans fats and sodium are real issues. The rest will become a relief act for lawyers.

Posted by: Steve | October 26, 2006 8:27 AM

It's getting too much. I try to buy ethically without breaking the bank, but there are too many options. We need someone to just stamp thing "good" and "bad." Just kidding. Sort of. :-)

Posted by: MD | October 26, 2006 8:39 AM

I've added looking for these labels as part of being a conscious consumer. It does get confusing, but if you do your research, you can spot the meaningful labels from the hype. I highly recommend The Ethical Gourmet. It's information packed, well written, and has some lovely recipes.

Posted by: Conscious omnivore | October 26, 2006 8:41 AM

Single standard would've been very helpful. Yes, I do look at these labels, but it's hard to know which ones are actually enforced and which ones are 'free for all' meaning every manufacturer can use them without anyone enforcing the standards.

Posted by: Elle | October 26, 2006 8:53 AM

the only real true compassionate label would be ANIMAL FREE, meaning, no animals killed or used in the product. Maybe in your daydream world, Annys, the animals will only be killed and consumed after long and fulfilling lives, but in mine, they will live IN the world, not be slaughtered by humans who really do not require them as a food source.

Posted by: Rockville | October 26, 2006 9:42 AM

Whole Foods Market is doing more than creating another "certification" they are putting an enormous amount of time and money into this effort. They are hiring highly qualified personnel to find farmers who want to be certified, educating them on the requirements, and then WFM sends out auditors to inspect the farms and then awards them with one to five stars, a four or five star rating carries a Certified Humane rating. This is one certification that the public can and will learn to rely on for authenticity. I am a farmer and I am putting out the effort to meet Whold Foods new Humane standards.

Posted by: Jerry Cunningham | October 26, 2006 9:47 AM

Homer Simpson: Are you saying you're never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer Simpson: Ham?
Lisa: No!
Homer Simpson: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal!
Homer Simpson: Heh heh heh ... ooh ... yeah ... right, Lisa. A wonderful ... magical animal.

Posted by: kungfukoh | October 26, 2006 10:08 AM

Here's what I want to know- who is enforcing these standards now? I mean, is there any follow-up by grocers or regulators WHATSOEVER that confirms that "cage free" chickens are, in fact, cage free?

Call me a skeptic. Seems like the food and health regulators will be too busy focusing on the deadly spinach batches (mad cow, or whatever the health crisis is du jour) to worry about investigating whether there are actually antibiotics being fed to cows on a so-called organic dairy farm.

Posted by: Rock Creek | October 26, 2006 10:24 AM

Oh come on, people. The only college degree I want my food to have is a "Bachelor of Tasty" . . . we care far too much about where our food comes from. The rest of the world is generally happy if they get meat, much less a lamb chop that used to be happy. Get a grip...

Posted by: Carl Sanders | October 26, 2006 10:30 AM

Yeah, I wish there was one standard - I know, the animals are still going to be killed so I can eat them, but I'd prefer that they not have nasty lives up to that point. Not only for ethical reasons, but also because (like Annys said) they taste better. Truly free-range animals need less antibiotics, too. We should all care about antibiotic use in animals, because overuse of antibiotics is bad for humans, too.

Posted by: h3 | October 26, 2006 10:39 AM

How I wish these labels would be cleaned up and only the labels that mean what they say are used. Cage free doesn't mean stress free, but it sure as hell implies it. I've been buying cage free eggs with the impression that they are nest eggs, with ample space for the chicken, etc. I see now that was a pipe dream. Short of raising my own food, I don't know that it's possible to trust the integrity of what I put on my plate. It's hard to see how consumers can trust either the labels on their food or the ideas being promoted by those labels, implied or not.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | October 26, 2006 10:46 AM

They're going to kill the animals anyway. If you need a label to assuage your guilt over eating meat, perhaps you should just look into veganism. That's the only way you'll know you're not personally harming animals.

It doesn't really matter to me how happy and carefree my bacon used to be. I'm really not sure how it could, without having it drive me insane.

Posted by: meat eater | October 26, 2006 11:09 AM

"the only real true compassionate label would be ANIMAL FREE, meaning, no animals killed or used in the product. Maybe in your daydream world, Annys, the animals will only be killed and consumed after long and fulfilling lives, but in mine, they will live IN the world, not be slaughtered by humans who really do not require them as a food source."

Hear, hear, Rockville.

And to the moron who said, "The rest of the world is generally happy if they get meat, much less a lamb chop that used to be happy. Get a grip..." --

The majority of "the rest of the world" neither wants nor needs meat. What poor, starving people need is for "highly evolved" Western cultures to stop feeding the world's grain to animals so that they can be eaten by well-off Americans and Europeans.

Do you have any idea how many people could eat for a week on the grain fed to a cow to produce 1 pound of beef?

Posted by: not another selfish American | October 26, 2006 11:10 AM

It's true that what consumers see or read on the outside of an egg carton doesn't necessarily represent how the hens who laid those eggs were treated.

In fact, animal welfare claims on egg cartons are currently unregulated in the U.S. More than 95% of eggs sold in stores today come from birds confined in wire battery cages so small, they can barely even move---a practice that most consumers oppose. But without any federal oversight, false and misleading claims on egg cartons are rampant. Phrases like "animal-friendly" or images of hens roaming around outside can be used indiscriminately--even if those eggs come from birds who spend their lives crammed inside a tiny wire cage.

In other words, not only is the egg industry cruelly confining hens in cages, it's also deceiving consumers about that abuse.

This issue was addressed in a recent petition filed with the FDA -- the petition requests that egg producers confining birds in cages be mandated to disclose the method of production by including a claim on the outside of the carton stating: "Eggs from Caged Hens." The FDA accepts public comments; more information can be found here: http://www.cok.net/camp/egg_labeling/.

Posted by: Erica Meier | October 26, 2006 11:15 AM

after reading all of the above, I wish I could turn myself into a vegetarian.

Posted by: Anon | October 26, 2006 1:01 PM

For the person who stated, "The majority of 'the rest of the world' neither wants nor needs meat," you're actually wrong. I've lived in Africa, Asia, and the sub-asian continent. Meat is very much a part of life (though the Maasai use their cattle more as an form of currency).

That aside, I used to look at the labels but then read how Whole Foods and marketers were making a serious profit off of the labelling. That's what's most shocking of all; The profits. So now, all I basically look at is the price.

Posted by: JJ | October 26, 2006 1:08 PM

I can live for weeks, or maybe months, without eating meat. However, if you have to interact with others on a regular basis and attend business functions, group lunches, holiday dinners at Mom's house, whatever, you're going to either eat meat in some form or go hungry. There are very few vegetarian selections offered on restaurant menus or business lunches unless you eat exclusively at an East Indian restaurant. Or maybe a seafood restaurant, but that's usually loaded with butter or creamy sauces. With the recent spinach/e.coli scare, I'm put off by salad bars, too.

I would like to see more promotion of vegetarian entrees, cookbooks, recipe tips on how to combine grains and beans to make up the complete protein needed for a healthy diet. I know you can combine grains and beans, or dairy and grains, or beans and dairy, whatever -- but am not really savvy on that. I don't especially need organic or free range, which jacks up the price.

That reminds me -- years ago in the mid-1960's there was a 'health food' store on F Street in Washington, DC, somewhere around 10th or 11th and F. They had unprocessed foods in barrels, natural honey, raw grains and dried fruits, and the pukiest, sickliest looking customers I've ever seen. I'd just go in and browse and the customers looked like characters in a Vincent Price movie. So much for 'health food.'

Posted by: Southern Maryland | October 26, 2006 1:55 PM

No matter how it was raised I am about to EAT an animal that was KILLED. Other than perhaps concerns regarding additives or other items that might harm me, I do not care how the animal was raised or in what conditions. Let me be even more blunt, I do not care if the animal suffered, I aimply want to know if it taste good and how my consumption of it will affect my health.

Although it has been said many times and more thoughtfully, if people spent as much time, money, and energy concerned with the welfare of humans as opposed to animals the world would be a much better place.

Posted by: Meat Eater | October 26, 2006 2:22 PM

Most of you will hate me for this, but the only sticker I care about on my chicken is the price tag. The rest is decoration as far as I am concerned.

Posted by: Melissa | October 26, 2006 2:27 PM

"I can live for weeks, or maybe months, without eating meat. However, if you have to interact with others on a regular basis and attend business functions, group lunches, holiday dinners at Mom's house, whatever, you're going to either eat meat in some form or go hungry. There are very few vegetarian selections offered on restaurant menus or business lunches unless you eat exclusively at an East Indian restaurant."

Actually, it's very easy to eat vegan in many types of restaurants. You just have to be willing to ask a few questions and deviate a bit from the menu.

For instance, in Italian restaurants, you can get salads and pastas with marinara sauce. Just ask the server to make sure there's no cheese in the salad or on the pasta. Focaccia and olive oil are great vegan starters, and many restaurants offer them first thing.

In Asian restaurants -- especially Chinese -- you can get all kinds of tofu, rice, noodle, and vegetable dishes. Just make sure to tell the server that you don't want beef or chicken broth used in your meal (Chinese), or fish sauce (Thai), or bonita flakes (Japanese), etc. If you order fried rice or Moo Shu vegetables, make sure to tell them not to include egg.

In any restaurant where you order vegetables, make sure there's no butter used and ask for olive oil or margarine, instead.

I've had very good luck even in mainstream "American" restaurants when I ask for certain ingredients to be left out or even for something not on the menu. For instance, any restaurant that serves pasta can make a special entree for you if you tell them what you want and keep it simple -- like spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and spinach (or any other vegetable they have available).

I've happily eaten at such chains as Macaroni Grill, Carabbas, Bone Fish Grille, and even the local diner. It's not hard, and it gets easier as you get practice.

Vegetarian entrees and cookbooks are everywhere nowadays. And the old science of having to combine foods to get complete protein has been completely debunked. As long as you eat a good variety over the course of the day, you'll be fine. Excellent books on vegan nutrition and cooking can be found at Amazon and on websites like veganessentials.com.

As to holidays and Mom's house, all I can tell you is that, if you take a vegan dish with you to holiday get-togethers, at least you'll have something to eat. And, an added bonus is that others will learn that vegan food is really tasty!

Anyway, if you decide to try it, know that you're joining a growing number of Americans who are moving vegetarianism / veganism into prominence. More and more veggie-friendly products are showing up in supermarkets every day, so you never actually have to search out specialty stores or shop exclusively at high-end grocery stores. And, given that most of the staples of an animal-free diet are quite cheap (beans, grains, soy protein), it's economical, as well.

Bon appetit!

Posted by: Anonymous | October 26, 2006 3:23 PM

It DOES matter where your meat comes from and how it was treated before it was slaughtered. There are environmental, economic, and societal reasons for choosing meat that was humanely raised.

For "Southern Maryland" -- I live in SoMd and have no trouble living as a vegetarian. Most restaurants have several vegetarian options, and most of those that don't are willing to make something for me. The grocery stories (especially Safeway and McKay's, in my experience) carry a wide variety of vegetarian and organic foods. Plus, there are farmers' markets in season for fresh food. With these options, and a stack of veggie cookbooks as tall as I am, I am able to eat very well and keep my husband (who is not vegetarian) well-fed. Like any diet (including a carnivorous one), it takes balance and planning. There's a lot out of information there, and it's not hard to find.

Posted by: Troylet | October 26, 2006 3:25 PM

"I aimply want to know if it taste good and how my consumption of it will affect my health."

Re the question of health, read T. Colin Campbell, THE CHINA STUDY. It will answer your questions.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 26, 2006 3:25 PM

"For the person who stated, "The majority of 'the rest of the world' neither wants nor needs meat," you're actually wrong. I've lived in Africa, Asia, and the sub-asian continent. Meat is very much a part of life (though the Maasai use their cattle more as an form of currency)."

The point is that, if Western countries stopped eating meat, worldwide hunger could be eradicated.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 26, 2006 3:36 PM

"As to holidays and Mom's house, all I can tell you is that, if you take a vegan dish with you to holiday get-togethers, at least you'll have something to eat. And, an added bonus is that others will learn that vegan food is really tasty!"

I'm spending holidays with my boyfriend's family. They thought he was insane when they found out he was dating a vegetarian, as if I am a curiosity from another planet. I have to bring a dish if I want to eat. Keep in mind that I'm in Maryland and they're in California. I've had to cook my own food since I became vegetarian ten years ago. I am perfectly happy with this arrangement. Being vegetarian is not difficult anymore; you just have to be open to new things. The only thing I've had difficulty with is eating at steakhouses; even the garden salads have meat on them. You have to be very specific with the server, but it's not that difficult. And I can't have Pho. But from what I hear about Pho, I wouldn't want to eat it anyway.

I make a point to frequent restaurants that I find accommodate vegetarians (as well as others who have food issues such as diabetes or allergies).

Oh, and Southern Maryland, I'm perfectly healthy, not sickly or thin with graying skin and brittle hair. Just because we eat healthily and are not obese does not mean we are skeletons from a horror movie.

Posted by: Mona | October 26, 2006 3:37 PM

I'll be happy to consider "animal compassionate" labels, but like so many other consumers, it had better be accompanied by a reasonable price.

I just recently moved to more organics in my life, principally milk and fresh and frozen vegetables. I'm feeling better about what I'm eating, and so will probably give the "animal compassionate" offerings a shot, but I rarely pay more than $3.50 for a pound of meat right now.

$10.00 a pound simply ain't gonna happen.

Posted by: Gene | October 26, 2006 3:48 PM

"The point is that, if Western countries stopped eating meat, worldwide hunger could be eradicated."

How should I put this ... that's a load of crap. World hunger has nothing to do with feeding US livestock. The US already produces more grain than can be delivered to countries who need it. A large portion of what we send to feed needy countries is wasted through local corruption or a lack of adequate transportation. Our production levels are not the problem.

Posted by: Joe | October 26, 2006 3:58 PM

As a farmer who cares deeply about the animals I breed and raise, I must say that recognition for such humane practices is very important - for me and consumers. But there is another humane seal that was not addressed in this blog. They're from the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit I have worked with for years. Their Animal Welfare Approved seal has the highest set of humane standards I have ever seen. I, for one, cannot wait for the seal to begin appearing in stores next month, since these standards eclipse the rest and will finally clarify for consumers what is the most humane choice.

Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch

Lindsborg, Kansas

Posted by: Anonymous | October 26, 2006 8:55 PM

You said: "Let me be even more blunt, I do not care if the animal suffered, I aimply want to know if it taste good and how my consumption of it will affect my health."

A rather selfish viewpoint! You are going to die someday, whether it be in two years, 20 or 100. Perhaps, you shouldn't eat anything at all and just starve because you are just going to die eventually, right?

Or, how about you or your children live in a slum with concrete or plywood floors, cardboard to sleep on and dry bread and water to consume. There are plenty of humans out there; what makes you so special and important to the whole picture?

How about an employer skip health insurance, heat and lighting. The financial bottom line would be improved at the expense of the comfort of the employees.

Sure, the animal is going to die, BUT can't they have a decent life, for 8 weeks, 6 months or a year, until then?

"Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
-Elie Weisel, Holocaust Victim

I'd like to thank those at Whole Foods who fee that it is important to provide these options. If all that mattered was the pocketbook, then there would only be one choice. It appears that more humanity is more expensive; a price I am willing to pay.

More to consider:
Meat Eater, this one must have had you in mind:
"Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind." -Albert Schweitzer

"A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help."
-Albert Schweitzer

Lastly, this I have to share with those who do not regard the quality of life of animals as important:
"Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives."
-Albert Schweitzer

Posted by: To "Meat Eater" | October 27, 2006 10:33 AM

To the vehement vegans who look down upon omnivores: Keep quite already. Sure, "animal compassionate" isn't your path but getting people to eat "animal compassionate" is a huge step if you want people to stop eating meat altogether. It gets people thinking about the living animal their food came from.

Please note this message is not intended for thoughtful and non-judgmental vegans, of which there are many.

Posted by: Some vegans... | October 27, 2006 11:51 AM

Annys Shin wrote: "I buy free-range poultry out of a combination of ethical considerations--and, well, baser ones. (I think they taste better.)"

Anny Shin reflects the new, expanding market for animal agribusiness. The industry is well aware of what it calls a "willingness-to-pay," or WTP, for both "intrinsic" (taste) and "extrinsic" (ethical considerations) characteristics. Animal welfare labels represent a way for the industry to add value to its products for which consumers are willing to pay a premium.

The animals whose flesh, milk and eggs are being marketed are not bred for "a long and fulfilling life," but rather to turnout commodities. Thus, these labels are about product quality, period. While taste is represents eating quality, animal husbandry standards represent a credence quality. Consumers feel they're getting a better product because of the credence they attribute to the standards used to produce the flesh or by-products.

Meaningful credence qualities include if food is GMO-free or fair-trade. However, labels claiming to ensure "environments and conditions that support the animal's physical, emotional, and behavioral needs to an even higher level" (Whole Foods), or that they are "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" (Humane Farm Animal Care), are hollow. Since the animals concerned needn't be bred in the first place, any claim of meeting their needs is simply pretense for continuing to bred them as products.

Vegans are opposed to the exploitation and commodification of animals. Far from a step in the right direction, the animal husbandry labels are the result of research and development into new animal products. Vegans are not looking down on people who eat flesh, milk and eggs, but simply challenging those people to stop view other living beings as food.

Posted by: Daniel Hammer | October 27, 2006 1:55 PM

"Vegans are not looking down on people who eat flesh, milk and eggs, but simply challenging those people to stop view other living beings as food."

Uh, but that is a dimension of what they are.

Animals are, among other things, food. They are eaten by other non-human animals. And they are eaten by humans, an animal designed to include meat in its diet. Today's humans are eating too much meat, but there is no logical, scientific basis to claim that animals are not or should not be food.

Posted by: mizbinkley | October 30, 2006 2:15 PM

The last thing I want is a single, government standard -- as we've seen, the government tends to write its standards to please short-sighted industry donors, rather than to provide clear and meaningful information to customers. I'm glad to see private organizations providing certification of humane conditions, and buy those whenever available.

And the folks who assume eating vegetarian is hard are hilarious in a sad way, even if they don't mean to be.

Posted by: Kira | October 31, 2006 12:35 PM

I met my "Organic" wife after 30 years of "anything goes if it tastes good". I must admit that the organic fruits and veggies generally look and taste better although they do not hold out very long, and are usually much more expensive. Meats and fish also seem more palatable and do not "stink" when cooked. There is a certain merit for all this "health" food, but no one (or no label) you can trust unless you go out to the source, see it and buy it for yourself.

Posted by: JD | November 7, 2006 9:35 AM

Why not just enforce the same laws against animal cruelty that are enforced against pet owners? If people treated dogs the same way they treat pigs, they would be thrown in jail. I'n not and never will be a vegetarian, but it just seems there is a double standard.

Posted by: Tom | November 8, 2006 2:26 PM

Well there certainly is a double standard, because of thinking like yours. If you wouldn't eat a dog or cat why eat a pig, cow, chicken or any other animal? All are sentient beings with an interest in living free of human exploitation and harm. See:
http://www.veganoutreach.org/whyvegan/

Posted by: re Double Standard | November 17, 2006 2:44 PM

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