Meat Labels Hope to Lure the Sensitive Carnivore
|The increase in animal-welfare labels has been driven in part by animal-rights organizations... But, like organic and natural labels, the animal-welfare claims are also a way for food retailers to offer something their competitors do not... At the same time, others question the validity of the certification programs for animal-welfare labels because some allow farming practices like cutting the tails off pigs and allowing animals to be raised entirely indoors.
NEW YORK TIMES by Andrew Martin Oct 2006 10/24/2006
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Many cows, pigs and chickens will soon be living cushier lives.
But in the end, they will still be headed for the dinner plate.
Whole Foods Market is preparing to roll out a line of meat that will carry labels saying "animal compassionate," indicating the animals were raised in a humane manner until they were slaughtered.
The grocery chain's decision to use the new labels comes as a growing number of retailers are making similar animal-welfare claims on meat and egg packaging, including "free farmed," "certified humane," "cage free" and "free range."
While the animal-welfare labels are proliferating, it remains unclear whether they appeal to anyone other than a niche market of animal lovers, particularly since the meat and eggs are as much as twice as expensive as products that do not carry the labels.
The increase in animal-welfare labels has been driven in part by animal-rights organizations. The Humane Society of the United States, for instance, has been working for nearly two years to end the practice of confining hens to cages. But, like organic and natural labels, the animal-welfare claims are also a way for food retailers to offer something their competitors do not.
Mr. Taft added that buyers say " 'It makes me feel good.' It's something to give it an edge in a tie-breaker."
The labeling trend has even been embraced by the restaurant industry, where a handful of high-end restaurants are now carrying "certified humane" meat. The Chipotle Mexican Grill, meanwhile, trumpets its humanely raised pork in an ad campaign that appears on the company's Web site and on billboards.
Steve Ells, the chain's founder, chairman and chief executive, said his decision to use humanely raised pork, free of antibiotics and hormones, in his burritos was based in part on his distaste for industrial-style farming, but also on his belief that it tastes better. When the natural pork was added to the menu six years ago, sales of the pork burrito quickly doubled, though the price jumped by $1.
"What is cool about this is we made our food taste better, and we did something good for the food system, for sustainability," Mr. Ells said.
The market for cage-free eggs, which often cost 60 percent more, is growing rapidly, though neither the federal government nor the United Egg Producers, a trade group, tracks their share of the market.
It is harder to determine how many meat packages carry animal-welfare labels. There is general agreement, though, that it remains a small niche that will probably expand substantially when Whole Foods begins offering its animal-compassionate line in its 186 stores.
At one grocery outlet, at least, "certified humane" meat is selling briskly. D'Agostino, a small grocery chain in New York, said sales of meat jumped 25 percent since it added the "certified humane" logo, though the products cost, on average, 30 to 40 percent more.
Several other vendors said they believed that the animal-welfare labels have helped them in various ways. "It has probably helped sales, but it's not really recordable," said Steve Gold, vice president for marketing at Murray's Chicken, which uses the "certified humane" label. "It helps the image of what we are trying to be as a company."
Whole Foods, which recently banned the sale of live lobster amid welfare concerns, has been working on its animal compassionate standards for three years and plans to unveil its logo in a few months, as soon as auditing guidelines are established to make sure farmers are following the rules. The initiative was started by Whole Foods' chief executive, John P. Mackey, a vegan who has been increasingly outspoken on animal-rights issues.
"We want to make sure that people know that it's real," said Margaret Wittenberg, vice president for communications and quality standards. "That it's not just marketing."
Several animal-rights organizations now offer to certify animal-welfare labels to bolster their credibility. For instance, the American Humane Association oversees the "free farmed" program, while Humane Farm Animal Care administers the "certified humane" label. The Animal Welfare Institute plans to unveil its own label next month.
But there are differences among the humane certification programs, and the activists who run them argue over which program is better.
For instance, the Animal Welfare Institute and "free farmed" allow nose rings for pigs; the rings make rooting more difficult and prevent the pigs from tearing up the ground. The others do not allow rings.