A new report published by Farm Sanctuary, an animal-protection organization, states that the labels the meat and poultry industry uses to identify humane-handling practices are largely meaningless in terms of animal welfare and comprise little more than marketing ploys to pacify a gullible public. The report, titled "The Truth Behind the Labels: Farm Animal Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices," charges that while some labels may be well-intended, key words such as "access" are not clearly defined and that auditing isn’t yet effective enough to give the labels credibility.

Gene Baur, co-founder and president of Farm Sanctuary, told MEATPOULTRY.com that "there needs to be transparency. What these labels say needs to be defined clearly." The best thing the industry can do, he said, is take steps "to make these labels actually mean something."

He suggested that such steps might include allowing consumer visits to farms and animal production facilities "to reconnect consumers to farms and farming." Another would be beefed-up auditing procedures, though he noted that "third-party auditing certainly isn’t perfect, as we have seen," referring to the passing grades the Hallmark-Westland beef operation received from auditors prior to the exposure of abusive animal-handling incidents that wound up destroying the company.

"Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about the cruel treatment of animals exploited for meat, milk and eggs. In response, animal producers and food retailers are developing programs to market their products in ways that appeal to these growing concerns, using labels like ‘humane,’ ‘natural,’ ‘cage free’ and ‘organic.’ But what do these terms really mean? Taking a closer look at the substance behind these labels, we see that they refer to a wide range of living conditions for animals — and they may not be consistent with what consumers envision," states a summary of the report. A review of definitions and accepted specifications and standards for these labels "shows that while some farm animals housed and handled under the tenets of a ‘certified’ labeling scheme may suffer less than others, the degree to which their welfare has improved is still far from ‘humane.’ And all animals exploited for meat, dairy or egg production – whether factory farmed or otherwise – meet the same cruel end at the slaughterhouse."

Baur told MEATPOULTRY.com that what the report tells him is that "a lot of these labeling schemes are really marketing schemes. Consumers want to believe animals are happy and healthy, and marketers are happy to have them believe that."

The report points out that a label declaration such as "free range" falls within the law if animals are simply offered access to pasture and farmyards, yet the meaning of "access" is not spelled out. The words "natural" and "naturally raised" "have little or no impact on animal welfare, and can be applied to products from animals raised in unnatural factory farm conditions," the report emphasizes. Even the word "organic," which is subject to the Organic Standards Act passed by Congress in 1996, is questionable: "Organic mega-dairies have utilized loopholes in government standards to confine cows in factory farm conditions," according to the report.

Baur said Farm Sanctuary’s goal was to publish a report "that is as accurate and objective as possible and will be an ongoing resource." Because his organization does not certify any such label declarations, "we don’t have any skin in this game. We did this to help clear up a lot of misconceptions about what these labels actually mean."

He realizes, he said, that the meat industry may not find much comfort in the report’s findings. "Still, I think we’re making progress. We hope this report becomes part of the discussion. That’s the thing, to get people, including the industry, talking about this."