Independence Day is tomorrow and freedom is in the air. The word “free” is all over our food in the form of labels that can be confusing and sometimes misleading when it comes to the welfare of the animals. Below we explain three labels you may see in the supermarket and what they really mean for animals.
Cage-Free Cage-free means just that: no cage. Chickens raised for meat live mostly in sheds on the ground, not in cages, so it’s a fairly meaningless label on meat packages. That said, over 90% of the 280 million egg-laying hens in this country live crammed into wire cages with less space to move than a sheet of paper. Cage-free eggs come from chickens who are not subjected to this confinement and can engage in some important chicken behaviors, like laying eggs in nests, dust bathing, and spreading their wings. This is a significant improvement. But there is no real space or outdoor requirement with the cage-free label, so if the farm does the bare minimum, these birds can still live in overcrowded, poor conditions.
Free Range People may think of green pastures when they hear the term “free-range,” but unfortunately that’s rarely the case. The term only has regulated meaning when applied to chickens raised for meat, not to eggs or to any other animals. Ninety-nine percent of the nine billion chickens raised for meat in this country live in huge, barren sheds by the thousands crowded on top of each other and their own waste. To qualify as “free-range,” chickens need only have access to the outdoors for an unspecified amount of time, and that does not have to be pasture, it can be a small concrete enclosure.
Hormone-Free The term “hormone-free” is not approved by the USDA on any meat products. In fact, the USDA actually prohibits the use of hormones on pigs or chickens, so all pork and poultry products that make claims about hormones are just following the law. In the case of beef and dairy cattle, federal regulations do permit the use of hormones like recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST), a synthetic growth hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. The labels “raised without hormones,” “no hormones administered,” and “not treated with rBGH” mean the animals were not exposed to hormones during their lives, but certainly does not indicate a higher level of animal welfare.
According to news reports, Smithfield’s new ownership is primarily intended to export pork products to China, which is prohibited from sending its pork and beef to the U.S due to food safety concerns for both humans and companion animals. Increasingly, American consumers are concerned with the conditions in which their food is produced. Smithfield is one of many companies phasing out gestation crates, horrendous metal-barred cages that keep breeding sows in spaces so tight they cannot even turn around. It had pledged to remove these archaic cages from its international operations by 2022, and we are encouraged to hear the company state that it plans to keep this commitment.
What You Can Do
What can consumers do when faced with difficult issues surrounding food safety and the welfare of animals? Animal health and consumer safety can be encouraged through expanded education. If meat is part of your diet, there are several product-labeling programs that require higher standards of care for farm animals. They include:
Similarly, the government is increasingly responding to consumer demand for more transparency around the conditions in which our food is produced. Just last week, the US Department of Agriculture approved mandatory country-of-origin labeling on steaks, ribs and other cuts of meat that will indicate where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. This is a huge step in the right direction and will help consumers make informed choices when shopping for their families.
The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act requires that many animals be quickly rendered unconscious before slaughter, and USDA policy requires that any plant violating this law be suspended or, at minimum, receive a warning. Despite this, the Inspector General reported that more than 25% of the time, inspectors failed to take appropriate action—in many cases electing to do nothing in response to astonishing cruelty.
The Inspector General witnessed pigs regain consciousness after being stunned, reported a captive bolt gun misfiring and becoming lodged in the skull of a still-conscious pig, and detailed a case of a downed pig being lifted and dropped by a forklift onto a concrete floor.
Take Action Please tell the USDA that Americans won’t stand for negligence in the face of cruelty. Using the text below, please email Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at firstname.lastname@example.org to thank him for empowering the Inspector General to uncover these violations and encourage the USDA to act on this report to prioritize measurable, effective improvements in the handling of livestock.
Here is some sample email text, but feel free to edit in your own words:
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
The ASPCA recently alerted me to the Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) appalling findings about inhumane pig handling at U.S. slaughter plants. Thank you for empowering the OIG to carefully and critically evaluate such an important area of the USDA’s mandate.
I am stunned by the accounts of cruelty depicted in the report, and concerned by the continual failure of USDA inspectors to punish wrongdoers. The USDA must ensure that its employees understand requirements for proper slaughter. The agency must commit sufficient resources to enforcing animal handling laws and put an end to institutional tolerance for cruelty once and for all.
Thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.
Thanks for your help, animal advocates! Please share this post with your friends on Twitter using the hashtag #TakeAction.
As we mentioned earlier today, the House Agriculture Committee moved forward with a new Farm Bill last night. Although the ASPCA is thrilled that the bill includes a provision to make it a crime to attend animal fights, we’re very disappointed that a last-minute amendment proposed by Rep. Steve King of Iowa also passed committee. This amendment would have far-reaching consequences for state laws that protect animals.
The King Amendment would gut existing state laws to protect animals as well as undermine states’ ability to pass their own laws regarding any “agricultural product”—including animals. Because of the broad nature of the federal definition of agricultural products, this amendment could potentially undercut state laws and regulations on a whole host of animal welfare issues, including not only farm animal welfare, but also issues from puppy mills to horse slaughter. This amendment violates states’ rights and is a solution in search of a problem.
“This is a federal law that seriously inhibits a state’s ability to protect animals,” says Nancy Perry, Senior Vice President of the ASPCA’s Government Relations department. “For example, in California, where a state initiative will require eggs to be cage-free in a few years, the King Amendment would block this type of voter-approved legislation and permit eggs to be transported to California from other states with fewer protections in place.”
Though we’re dismayed by this addition to the Farm Bill, we’ll continue to fight efforts to undermine animal welfare legislation on the state level. Please stay tuned to the blog for the latest news about the farm bill, and join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade to learn how you can take action for animals in your state.
This morning, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam vetoed his state’s dangerous anti-whistleblower/“ag-gag” bill, Senate Bill 1248/House Bill 1191. This is a major victory for animal welfare and consumer safety—if signed into law, this legislation would have thwarted investigations of agricultural enterprises and protected animal abusers instead of working to prevent such mistreatment.
Governor Haslam’s veto comes just days after Tennessee’s Attorney General declared the legislation “constitutionally suspect under the First Amendment on three grounds” and noted that it could violate a person’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Animal abusers in Tennessee have good reason to want to keep their cruel and illegal actions out of sight. While most states exempt farm animals from their animal cruelty statues entirely, last year Tennessee passed a bill, spearheaded by the ASPCA, to make extreme acts of cruelty to livestock subject to felony-level penalties.
Investigations on farms have been extremely successful in documenting the inhumane treatment of animals, uncovering crucial health and welfare information and spurring many groundbreaking reforms. If Tennessee’s ag-gag bill had become law, the cruelty revealed by these types of investigations—such as the gruesome beating and soring of Tennessee Walking Horses disclosed last year—would remain hidden from the public.
We thank Governor Haslam for listening to the citizens of Tennessee and preventing this harmful and unnecessary bill from becoming law. We also applaud and thank our Tennessee Advocates, local humane organizations, and groups representing other interests (including civil liberties, journalism, religion, food safety and the environment) put at risk by this bill for their support in fighting it!
Where does your state stand on anti-whistleblower legislation? Find out here, and be sure to join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade so you can take action on current animal-related bills in your state!