It came as a big shock to consumers when some of Big Agro’s common practices for increasing their profits were revealed to the general public. For example, people were horrified to discover that the milk they were buying contained traces of the steroids, hormones, and antibiotics routinely given to dairy cows to increase production and reduce veterinary costs. The practices continued, but the public outcry resulted in some dairies specializing in producing without these unwanted extras, labeling it as such, and selling it at a substantially higher price.
Similarly, consumers were outraged when confronted by the conditions under which animals were raised for market. While most people aren’t prepared to convert to vegetarianism, they are willing to pay more for products from companies that don’t engage in inhumane farming practices. For most people, it’s worth paying a little more for the knowledge that the calf that provided the veal they are buying wasn’t kept in a crate too small to turn around in for its entire short life.
The fact that Americans care about the treatment of animals — even those destined to become food — was demonstrated when retailers stopped purchasing eggs from Sparboe’s after an investigation revealed the company’s inhumane treatment of chickens. The thirteen serious food safety violatiosn found during FDA audits were somehow missed by the USDA auditors, who had been there just days earlier. The guidelines for all government agencies which serve as the first line of defense for taxpaying consumers in ensuring food safety should be consistent and uniform. This case demonstrated that it is not.
Another problem is that the USDA does not clearly define what constitutes "inhumane treatment." Their website states that their Process Verified Programs are ”limited to programs or portions of programs where specified process verified points are supported by a documented quality management system." The specified process verified points are identified by the supplier. Companies with approved USDA Process Verified Programs are able to make claims associated with their process verified points — including age, source, feeding practices, or other raising and processing claims — and market themselves as “USDA Process Verified” with use of the “USDA Process Verified” shield and term.
That means that corporations get to determine their own processes and procedures themselves, as well as supply their own definitions of what constitutes “humane.” As long as they adhere to their own stated processes, they can be approved by the USDA, and then market their products for more money. Clearly, an objective definition of “humane treatment” and a set of criteria that applies to all such claims is needed. Without such criteria, it will remain possible for consumers to continue paying more for eggs laid by “free-range” chickens in the belief that they are being treated humanely; while in reality, the chickens have had their beaks removed to allow a greater number of them to “range” within a smaller space.
While it’s important that farmers are able to make a living, it’s equally important that animals be protected from cruelty, and that consumers be protected from false advertising and disinformation campaigns, especially when states like California are in the middle of a historic draught that is largely the result of animal agriculture. The informed purchasing choices of consumers have demonstrated how much they value the humane treatment of animals. It’s up to government agencies to establish clear guidelines that reflect those values.