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‘Humane’ food labels spark controversy

Sun., Dec. 26, 2010

Ranking considers treatment of animals

ST. LOUIS – American shoppers face a dizzying array of labels in the aisles of their grocery stores, most designed to help them make healthy choices. Soon they’ll see yet another label – this one concerning the health of animals in the food chain.

“There’s organic, there’s fair trade, but ‘humane’ is the next big thing,” said Phil Lempert, a supermarket and consumer behavior analyst. “We ask shoppers what they’re looking for, and that’s what they’re telling us.”

The increasing consumer demand, though, has already touched off a controversy over labeling standards for meat and eggs – and has resulted in charges that some producers have misrepresented their products and practices.

The process of crafting clear and meaningful standards, Lempert said, could get contentious. “It’s going to be very political,” he said. “I also think it’s going to be much more expensive. It might increase prices 20, 30, 40, 50 percent. But you’ve got people who will pay more for the label.”

Three major supermarket chains – Whole Foods, Supervalu and Safeway – have recently pledged to boost their animal welfare standards and to inform shoppers about their efforts with new labels or in-store signs.

The move comes after recent research shows that consumers rank animal welfare high on their lists of concerns. A study by the Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic revealed that well over half of consumers believe animal welfare is among the most important social issues in the food business. A survey financed by the American Farm Bureau showed that 89 percent of consumers believe that companies that require farmers to improve animal care “are doing the right thing.”

Whole Foods plans to launch a program developed by a group called the Global Animal Partnership that will rate products on a scale of 1 to 5 based on their animal welfare standards.

While some of the program requirements dovetail with those the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic program, advocates say the program goes beyond the government standards. The “USDA Organic” label, for example, also prohibits antibiotics, but critics accuse big producers of exploiting vague language in the law and violating certain organic principles, especially one requiring that animals have access to pasture. Some believe such practices have undermined consumer confidence in the organic label.

“There’s been so much controversy about what organics are,” Lempert said. Shoppers “want to know specifics.”

The livestock industry has chafed against some of the third-party certification programs, underscoring its own efforts to support better animal husbandry. Some of the requirements of these programs, critics say, are impractical or unrealistic.

“I think it would be irresponsible to establish standards and not include the people who know how to do the job,” said Dan Thomson, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University.


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