American shoppers face a dizzying array of labels in the aisles of their grocery stores, most designed to help them make healthy choices. Soon they'll see yet another label — this one concerning the health of animals in the food chain.

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American shoppers face a dizzying array of labels in the aisles of their grocery stores, most designed to help them make healthy choices. Soon they’ll see yet another label — this one concerning the health of animals in the food chain.

“There’s organic, there’s fair trade, but ‘humane’ is the next big thing,” said Phil Lempert, a supermarket and consumer-behavior analyst. “We ask shoppers what they’re looking for, and that’s what they’re telling us.”

The increasing consumer demand, though, already has touched off a controversy over labeling standards for meat and eggs — and has resulted in charges that some producers have misrepresented their products and practices.

The process of crafting clear and meaningful standards, Lempert said, could get contentious. “It’s going to be very political,” he said. “I also think it’s going to be much more expensive. It might increase prices 20, 30, 40, 50 percent. But you’ve got people who will pay more for the label.”

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Three major supermarket chains — Whole Foods, Supervalu and Safeway — have recently pledged to boost their animal-welfare standards and to inform shoppers about their efforts with new labels or in-store signs.

Research: People care

The move comes after recent research shows that consumers rank animal welfare high on their lists of concerns. A study by the Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic revealed that well over half of consumers believe animal welfare is among the most important social issues in the food business. A survey financed by the American Farm Bureau showed that 89 percent of consumers believe that companies that require farmers to improve animal care “are doing the right thing.”

Whole Foods plans to launch a program developed by a group called the Global Animal Partnership that will rate products on a scale of 1 to 5 based on their animal-welfare standards. The program has rolled out at some Whole Foods stores in the South already and will expand to more stores early this year.

The partnership — a Washington-based nonprofit composed of farmers, animal-welfare advocates, scientists and retailers — has developed a progressive “step” system that rates pork, chicken and beef from producers that chose to participate in the program. For example, a steak would earn a “Step 1” rating if the animal has spent two-thirds of its life on pasture or rangeland, but would earn a “5” if it spends its entire life on pasture or rangeland.

Chicken producers can an earn a “3” or “4” rating if they provide their birds with two or more “enrichments,” such as hay bales or whole grains, and a “5” if they have fewer than 500 birds or they provide perches. The program requires, among other things, that producers be able to trace an animal through its life, from youth to slaughter, and prohibits the routine use of antibiotics.

The partnership says 700 farms have been certified so far, and anticipates reaching 1,000 soon. Firms include some larger specialty producers, such as California-based Niman Ranch and Bell & Evans, headquartered in Pennsylvania.

While some of the program requirements dovetail with those the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic program, advocates say the program goes beyond the government standards. The “USDA Organic” label, for example, also prohibits antibiotics, but critics accuse big producers of exploiting vague language in the law and violating certain organic principles, especially one requiring that animals have access to pasture. Some believe such practices have undermined consumer confidence in the organic label.

“There’s been so much controversy about what organics are,” Lempert said. Shoppers “want to know specifics.”

Smartphone apps have given consumers better tools for informed shopping. “Consumers today are not going to fall for that,” Lempert said, referring to misleading package claims. “They can find out about a product with their phone, just standing in front of it.”

No uniform standards

The Global Animal Partnership is one of a handful of humane-certification programs, adding to a sometimes-confusing label landscape. Because there’s no government standard for “humane,” companies are now free to classify products by their own definition.

On meat products, shoppers also may see “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane,” which are run by different organizations, and like the partnership, use third-party certifiers. Egg cartons also can bear “Food Alliance Certified,” “United Egg Producers Certified” and “American Humane Certified,” though the latter two programs allow birds to be in small cages.

“These are industry attempts to essentially put a label on a product to give consumers a false assurance that the animals are well-treated,” said Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society recently filed a class-action lawsuit against Maryland-based Perdue, the nation’s third-largest chicken producer, accusing the company of false advertising with its “humanely raised” label.

“A lot of people are increasingly concerned about cruelty in agribusiness, and the industry’s response, in many cases, has been, instead of improving animal welfare, to engage in humane washing,” Shapiro said. “That’s just like green washing.”

The livestock industry has chafed against some of the third-party certification programs, underscoring its own efforts to support better animal husbandry. Some of the requirements of these programs, critics say, are impractical or unrealistic.

“It has really caught us off guard that groups might attack our lifestyle, indirectly or directly, and tell us how to raise our animals,” said Dan Thomson, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University. “… I think it would be irresponsible to establish standards and not include the people who know how to do the job.”

Both the livestock industry and animal-advocacy groups say the most important thing for consumers — who are already dealing with so much seemingly conflicting package information — is to come up with a single standard.

“We need one set of standards, so we remove the marketing of animal welfare in the grocery store,” Thomson said, “because it’s not fair to the animals, the producers or the consumers.”

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