According to a new Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) report titled “Label Confusion: How ‘Humane’ and ‘Sustainable’ Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Consumers,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fails to verify the accuracy of label claims on most meat and poultry products sold in the United States. The report suggests that food label claims used on millions of meat packages lack “any apparent verification,” and AWI has asked USDA to require independent third-party certification.

Noting that the use of animal welfare and sustainability claims has increased dramatically during the past decade as consumers become more aware of—and concerned about—the well-being of animals raised for food and the purported negative impacts of animal agriculture on the environment, AWI contends that the public’s interest in these claims makes them ripe for exploitation.

During the past three years, AWI researched the USDA approval process for 25 animal welfare and environmental claims, such as “humanely raised” and “sustainably farmed,” focusing exclusively on claims that are not third-party certified. The findings apparently revealed that the government “regularly” approves the use of such claims with “little or no supporting evidence” documenting their accuracy. The group also determined that the current label approval process (i) “is inconsistent and lacks transparency,” (ii) “does not meet consumer expectations,” (iii) “leads to misleading and deceptive labeling,” and (iv) “harms farmers who use accurate claims.”

Finding that only two of the claims approved by USDA were substantiated by more than a brief producer statement and more than 80 percent were backed by “no supporting evidence whatsoever,” AWI argues that the lack of government oversight confuses consumers and threatens the livelihoods of higher-welfare farmers who have earned the right to use such claims.

“Until USDA makes significant changes to its approval process,” said report author Dena Jones, “consumers should be wary of any meat products whose label includes an animal welfare or environmental claim that is not accompanied by a statement or logo indicating an independent third party verified the claims.” See AWI News Release, May 14, 2014.