Using labels to find humanely sourced food

The USDA has refused to pass regulations that would have set higher, more humane standards for livestock and chickens sold as "organic."

The USDA has refused to pass regulations that would have set higher, more humane standards for livestock and chickens sold as "organic."

If you, like us, think a lot about where your food comes from, you’re probably aware that the most exciting regulatory efforts are coming from the private sector. And they'd better be, because in another setback for consumers, the USDA just withdrew a rule that would have set higher standards for how animals raised as "certified organic" are treated.

The proposed Obama-era rule, which attracted 72,000 comments with only 50 opposing it, according to data compiled by the Organic Trade Association, would have allowed hens to stretch their wings fully and given livestock some access to the outdoors. Currently about half of all "organic" eggs come from hens living in total confinement. Many of these farms house as many as three egg-laying hens per square foot with no time spent outdoors.

The Center for Food Safety, along with three other consumer groups, have moved to sue the USDA, arguing that it wrongly claimed no authority over regulating living space or preventive health care for animals.

Now what?

So with no overarching regulatory body in place to oversee agriculture production, what’s a consumer to do?

You can start by learning more about how to read food labels. A Greener World, a nonprofit that works to identify healthy and sustainable food systems, has put together a thorough guide to helping consumers decipher which labels actually mean what they claim. It also makes clear that while current USDA standards for "organic" may limit the use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, it does little ensure decent welfare standards for animals. 

The following food labels establish animal welfare standards that are audited and verified by independent third parties, and there are others. Here's hoping more good food-labeled products find their way to grocery shelves everywhere.

Sifting through food labels and claims can be difficult. The ROC label is among the newest designed to support good food practices.

Sifting through food labels and claims can be difficult. The ROC label is among the newest designed to support good food practices.

Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). A coalition of organizations and businesses, including the Rodale Institute, Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, just released the ROC label, which stands on three pillars: soil health, social fairness, and animal welfare. The goal is to “increase soil organic matter over time, improve animal welfare, provide economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers, and create resilient regional ecosystems and communities.” ROC-certified producers must meet the requirements of one of the existing certifications for animal welfare and social fairness, such as Animal-Welfare Approved or Fair Trade Certified. Another distinction: It will be overseen by the Alliance rather than the USDA. 

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). This food label for meat and dairy products is overseen by A Greener World. Consumer Reports has called it the only “highly meaningful” food label for farm animal welfare, outdoor access and sustainability. AWA is supported by an advisory board of farmers, veterinarians, and scientists and is one of only two United States labels that require slaughter practices to be audited. It also requires that animals be given an unconfined pasture or range on which to live "naturally." Certified Grassfed is another AGW label and the only one in the United States and Canada that guarantees a 100% free-range, forage diet.

Resource: AWA’s website offers a search engine for certified products. 

Certified Humane. This is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an international nonprofit certification organization. Producers are required to meet HFAC’s Animal Care Standards for each farm animal from birth to slaughter, which includes providing a cage-free environment, providing quality feed free of growth hormones, antibiotics, and animal by-products, and complying with food safety regulations. Annual third-party inspections by scientists and veterinarians ensure that producers and processors uphold certification standards before renewal. However, there is no requirement for pasture access for pigs and meat poultry, and beef cattle end their days in feedlots. HFAC is sponsored by the ASPCA, Center for Food Safety, and many other humane organizations.

Resource:  See a list of certified producers and a map of stores where products are carried. The directory can also be downloaded as an app.

California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Although this label covers a much smaller range of farms than the first two, Californian produce is still widely available across the United States. CCOF partners with nationally known organizations, including the California Climate and Agriculture Network, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Organic Trade Association. Many of CCOF’s regulations were used as a baseline for the USDA when it began discussing what it means to be organic.

Resource: CCOF has a directory that guides consumers toward certified products.

Certified Sustainable Seafood is a blue label created by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This label ensures that fish is either caught wild or in fisheries that uphold the MSC Fisheries Standard. All fish receiving this label is assessed on its impact to wild fish ecosystems. Regular DNA testing ensures that standards are upheld consistently.

Resource: Here’s how to search for sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium also has Seafood Watch, an app that lets consumers search for sustainable seafood in restaurants.

Takeaway: As consumers we have a lot of say in how producers raise food. We can choose to support farmers and business owners who invest in the integrity of their products. We can choose compassion.