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In a letter obtained by One Green Planet, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Senator Dianne Feinstein urged Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to require claims such as “humanely raised” and “cage-free” on food labels  to, you know, actually mean something.

Oh, that clears things right up.


Currently, a product can be labeled as “humanely raised” if it meets a certain set of criteria. We’d tell you what that criteria is, but it varies from producer to producer and is entirely self-defined. In a nut shell, a meat producer gets to decide how they define the term “humane” and then they label their product as such if they feel they’ve lived up to their own standards. You know, it’s like in college when you tell the university what a medical degree means to you and then they give you one if you feel you’ve learned everything you outlined as pertinent to the field of study … oh, it doesn’t work like that? Wow, that’s probably because that would be completely ridiculous. Not unlike the current “humanely raised” label.

What’s more, no one is required to double check if the producer is even living up to their own standards. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will simply take a producer’s word for it. True, there are some industrious folks out there that can voluntarily ask FSIS to give their standards a once over, thusly earning them a “USDA Process Verified” seal. But again, they’re verifying that these producers are merely living up to their own hype. Hype that, by definition (or really, lack thereof), might be no better than industry standard.

Well, all you really succeeded in doing today was turning on the lights and wandering around, but  that’s all you promised you were going to do in the first place. Process Verified!

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In the letter, Senators Booker and Feinstein urged FSIS to tighten the standards for these labels, admonishing Vilsack that, “it is a violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act to label a product in a manner that is misleading or false.”

The Senators want to see the term receive a real definition and ensure that it’s adherence is directly observed, saying, “It is our view that claims like ‘humanely raised’ should only be approved by FSIS, or verified through the Process Verified Program, when there is evidence that animal welfare standards set by an independent third party, and which significantly exceed standard industry practice, are being met.”

The terms “cage-free” and “no hormones added” were at issue for the senators as well and referred to as “misleading.” Basically, without proper checks and a structure to the labeling system, the labels that appear on chicken or turkey meat packaging are largely pointless. The FDA does not approve any hormones for use in chickens or turkeys, and for the most part, the only birds kept in cages are egg-laying hens. Throwing these labels on poultry packaging is akin to wearing a button on your shirt all day that reads, “I breathe and also blink my eyes at regular intervals.”

When the label appears on a carton of eggs it carries more weight, but is still confusing to the average consumer. While “cage-free” eggs are not produced by hens confined to cruel battery cages, most are still confined to a largely overcrowded factory barn that limits their movement and makes outdoor access virtually impossible. It’s an improvement, but a minimal one.

That’s waaaay better. Just like nature intended.

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In reference to the term for this use, the letter stated, “A ‘cage free‘ label leads consumers to believe that a company raised birds with exceptional animal welfare standards, when in fact this label provides a consumer no meaningful insight into how one poultry product differs from any other.”

Considering that a recent survey found that 25 percent of Americans think that “cage-free” and “free-range” mean the same thing, while 170 million Americans don’t really know what the definition of “cage-free” actually is at all, we’d say they’re right on the money.

So, why do they care? The letter wraps up by saying, “Apart from being a statutory mandate, accurate labeling is critical to ensure the integrity of interstate commerce and to provide consumers truthful information about the meat and poultry products they buy.”

You know how senators can get, right? Caring about things like statutory mandates and stuff. Plus, according to an ORC International survey nearly two thirds (69 percent) of Americans asked said they prioritize animal welfare as a significant factor in deciding what foods to buy, which means these labels need to be clear in order for the American people to make educated choices about where they spend their hard earned dollars. And they aren’t.

Hmm, let’s see, it says right here that this product is made using ingredients that come from some place in a process that was overseen by someone in accordance with a statute. Sounds clear to me!

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Don’t believe us (or the compassionate senators, for that matter)? According to the Humane Heartland Animal Welfare Survey,  95 percent of the respondents indicated that a humanely raised certified label signified “better treatment of animals,” and the humanely raised label was ranked as the highest in importance over organic, natural and antibiotic free. You remember that label, right? The one that doesn’t actually have a definition? People clearly want to make the most compassionate choices that they can and murky labeling doesn’t help us to do that.

While eating plant-based and cutting the entire meat and dairy industry out of the equation is the simplest and easiest way to ensure your dollars don’t go where you’d rather they didn’t, forcing governmental agencies to adhere to honest and transparent guidelines is critical. Thank you Senator Booker and Senator Feinstein for standing up for animals and consumers!

Lead Image Credit: Liberty News/Huffington Post