When you receive a call about your vehicle’s extended warranty, you likely hang up without paying a dime—you know it’s a trick.
However, shoppers often don’t apply the same kind of thought when at the grocery store.
Unfortunately, much like a suspicious call offering a deal that’s too good to be true, “humane” and “sustainable” labels on animal-derived foods are deceptive.
Instead of selling delicious vegan foods that are truly humane, many companies simply slap misleading labels touting compassion on the same types of cruelly sourced products that they’ve sold for decades.
This is known as “humane-washing,” and it’s a marketing ploy that makes consumers believe that they’re making kind choices when they’re actually not.
Here, we’ll break down what these deceptive labels really mean.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t verify the accuracy of producers’ claims, so it’s nearly impossible to know what the cows really ate. “Grass-fed” cows are still subjected to mutilations without painkillers—hot irons are pressed into their skin, and their sensitive horns are burned off.
Farmers and ranchers may clear vast acres of land filled with natural plant life in order to graze cows, which kills wildlife and causes erosion.
’Cage-Free’ Chickens and Eggs
-Hens used in the egg industry live in dark, severely crowded warehouses.
-The tips of chicks’ beaks are commonly burned off.
-Up to 86% of hens used in cage-free egg production have broken bones.
-All male chicks are killed—often ground up or thrown into the trash to suffocate—because they’re considered useless by the egg industry.
What if Animals Raised With ‘No Antibiotics’ Get Sick?
Producers can use this label as long as they provide “sufficient evidence” that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
More animals can suffer and die because farmers don’t treat them when they get infections, in order to keep the deceptive label.
Which Animals on Farms Are Raised With ‘No Hormones’?
This label applies only to the flesh and milk of cows. It’s illegal to give hormones to chickens, pigs, and turkeys, so any company advertising hormone-free products from these animals isn’t doing any extra work.
If you look closely, you should find a stamp reading, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
Essentially, this is the equivalent of marketing zero-calorie water but with cruelty to animals thrown into the mix.
For many, the overriding image of agriculture in the Amazon is one of environmental destruction. About 80% of deforestation in the region has been attributed to cattle ranching, tainting beef exports.
Brazil’s beef industry hopes to tempt buyers back to the Amazon region, which covers about 40% of the country’s total area, with a new deforestation-free pledge. But critics are concerned it could effectively legalise deforestation in the region.
In May, government officials began fleshing out the details of the so-called Amacro sustainable development zone, which it is hoped will lead to a massive intensification of agriculture in the Amazon. The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is expected to greenlight the project later this year.
Previous agricultural development projects have led to the loss of vast tracts of native vegetation in other parts of Brazil, but Amacro’s proponents promise it is being designed to prevent illegal deforestation. Edivan Maciel, the former agriculture secretary in the state of Acre, says the aim is to produce more beef on land that has already been cleared. It is about “optimising what we already have without having to advance over the forest”, says Maciel, a Bolsonaro-allied appointee.
But Humberto de Aguiar, a federal prosecutor in Acre who handles environmental crimes, told the Guardian that the effect of the plan is such as “to legalise the deforestation already being done”.
It’s very difficult to stay legal. If I had another means of survival, I would leave
Gabriel Santos*, small-time rancher
Amacro is the brainchild of Assuero Doca Veronez, a powerful figure in Amazonian agribusiness, who told a Brazilian news site last year that “deforestation for us is synonymous with progress”. Veronez, a ranch owner and president of Acre’s Federation of Agriculture and Livestock, was fined for illegal deforestation in 2006. He denied any wrongdoing and said he sold the property in 2002.
Veronez says more intensive cattle ranching will enable more beef to be produced on less land and protect against deforestation. He claims to produce about 2.5 times the state average for beef. “Amacro can contribute to the preservation of these areas,” he says.
The idea that a shift to intensive ranching could cut deforestation in the Amazon is disputed by some researchers. It may be a flawed approach, concluded a University of California report in 2017, which noted, “the opposite could be true”.
Judson Valentim, a researcher at Brazil’s agriculture research agency, says intensification is unlikely to change the system responsible for the breakneck pace of deforestation. Veronez, like most large ranchers, relies on a network of smaller producers, most of whom, according to Valentim, lack the technical and financial resources to invest in more efficient grazing practices.
While ranchers like Veronez may avoid deforestation, their suppliers may not have the luxury to do so, says Valentim.
Growing demand for Amazonian beef has tempted more local people to raise cattle as a viable livelihood for feeding their families, leading to a sharp increase in illegal deforestation.
Gabriel Santos*, a small-time rancher from the Amacro zone, has been fined more than $130,000 (£96,000) for illegally clearing land in the reserve for grazing. But he says converting the forest to pasture is his only viable economic option.
Because Santos’ farm has been blacklisted by regulators, he cannot sell cattle directly to slaughterhouses. So he sells to a middleman, who sells on to the big ranchers.
If big ranchers become more productive, even if they do so without cutting the forest, it pressures the forest-razing cattle producers beneath them to grow their operations as well, says Valentim.
Veronez says he has nothing to do with other people’s environmental issues: “I’m absolutely against this kind of control.”
Although Brazilian law restricts most Amazonian landowners from clearing more than 20% of their property, lack of regulatory oversight helps to explain why 94% of deforestation may be undertaken illegally.
“It is very difficult to stay legal,” says Santos, who has racked up half a dozen eviction orders because of unpaid fines. He says with an annual income of $10,000, he cannot pay. He hides when government agents come to his property and fears he will eventually be hauled to jail. He attributes a recent heart attack to the stress.
“How am I going to support my family?” he pleads. “If I had another means of survival, I would leave. I only stay here because I have nowhere to go.”
“From an early age we are presented with an idealised view of what farms are like and how animals live on them.”
World Animal Protection hopes to change that with their Factory Farm Playset. Or ‘the worst toy in the world’, as they have labelled it.
Unlike ordinary farmyard toys, the playset has been designed to show the unnatural living conditions forced upon cows, pigs and chickens on intensive farms. It even has a warning on the packaging highlighting the methane and CO2 emissions from farming that contribute to climate change.
“While 5 or 6-year-olds may not have a grasp on politics, diplomacy and global issues, they have a clear sense of right and wrong and the need to make changes,” says Lindsay Duncan, UK Campaigns Manager for Farming at World Animal Protection.
The charity hopes the 1/32 scale model will allow children “to reimagine the traditional farmyard narrative we are taught while we are young.”
What is factory farming?
It is estimated that at least 50 billion animals are reared on factory farms every year. This means they are deprived of natural light, outdoor space and sustainable feed.
Designed to maximise production and minimise costs, agribusinesses keep livestock like cattle, poultry and fish at high stocking densities on large-scale production plants.
How does intensive farming impact the environment?
The Factory Farm Playset not only highlights the ethical dilemmas of intensive farming, it also underlines its correlation with climate change.
“Animal agriculture is responsible for producing the equivalent of 7.1 giga-tonnes of CO2 per year – that’s 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,” continues Duncan.
If left unchecked, agriculture is projected to produce 52 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades – 70 per cent of which will come from meat and dairy alone.
“We have to have a reduction in meat eating and an end to factory farming to help avoid further damage to the climate. Eating less meat and growing crops for human beings instead of animals uses significantly less land and resources, drastically reducing emissions and taking the pressure off wild animals and their habits.”
And while the Factory Farm Playset is designed for children, World Animal Protection hopes adults will come to the same conclusion.
“We can all learn something from it to help protect the planet for future generations. We, the ‘grown-ups’, have to change our ways, and quickly.”
In July 2021, in a special issue of the Global Trade and Customs Journal on sustainable trade, Eurogroup for Animals reacted to the publication of the EU Trade Policy Review, and to the omission of animal welfare in the text, arguing that countries need to better address the impact of trade policies on animal welfare in order to promote resilient and sustainable economies.
The new trade strategy published in February 2021 has been described by EU authorities as the greenest ever. The text underlines that EU trade policy will have to “unequivocally support the Green Deal in all its dimensions”. Yet, the document does not offer new proposals on making trade policy more sustainable. It also omits to address animal welfare, and how the impact of trade policy on animals has fuelled several of the challenges the planet is facing, such as the surge in antimicrobial resistance, the spread of zoonoses or the biodiversity and climate crises.
The Opinion Piece describes the state of play for animal welfare in EU trade policy and considers tools to improve the situation. To better address animal welfare in trade policy, the EU could pursue two strategies. Firstly, it could increasingly rely on market access tools, either applying more standards at the border or using conditional liberalisation in its trade agreements. Secondly, at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) it should promote the need to be allowed to differentiate, and thus discriminate, products based on methods of production that are invisible in final products, such as animal welfare standards. You can read more here.
If the EU wants to address the root causes of the costly crises the planet is facing, it will have to consider how to ensure that its trade policy does not stimulate unsustainable production systems. Achieving such a goal will require the adoption of measures bolder than the ones listed in the new EU trade strategy. The review of EU animal welfare standards will be a test case for all who wish to see more standards applied to imports, and, hopefully, these discussions could steer needed debates at the WTO on methods of production. It is high time to transform trade policy into a real enabler of sustainability.