January 27, 2020
Office of Policy and Program Development
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Inspection Service
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250-3700
Re: Food Safety and Inspection Service Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submission; Docket ID: FSIS-2016-0021
Dear Assistant Administrator Nintemann:
I am the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a national nonprofit organization with 800,000 members and supporters. We have advocated on behalf of farm animals since 1986 and currently operate sanctuaries for rescued farm animals in New York and California. I am submitting these comments to express our concerns about the revised United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submission, specifically in regards to the term “free range,” which we believe misleads consumers.
The “free range” label connotes that animals are able to express themselves and to range freely in a natural environment. However, birds raised and sold as “free range” are commonly crowded by the thousands in conditions that are more accurately described as factory farms. On most farms representing themselves to be humane, including those that use the “free range” label, animals are treated more like commodities than as living feeling creatures. They are typically raised in overcrowded unsanitary conditions that don’t comport with consumer expectations of “free range,” or synonymous claims (“free roaming,” “pasture fed,” “pasture grown,” “pasture raised,” and “meadow raised”).
Like other animal welfare and “humane” labelling claims, those requiring animals to have “access to the outdoors” usually sound better than they are, and they mislead consumers. Birds who are raised with “outdoor access” are commonly packed by the thousands in warehouses with small openings that lead to barren “outdoor” areas that are inadequate, and are rarely if ever used by most of the birds. Simply requiring producers to provide the USDA with documentation showing birds have outdoor access does not address this concern.
Birds who are raised as “free range” should be allowed to express themselves and move about freely in a healthy and diverse ecosystem with ample groundcover, shrubs, trees and other enrichments that allow for perching, dustbathing, nesting, and other natural behaviors. They should be given safe shelter and ample space to interact and develop relationships with other animals in a healthy social system. Debeaking (sometimes called “beak trimming”), a common procedure whereby a portion of the bird’s beak is amputated to reduce injuries that occur in stressful overcrowded conditions, should not be allowed in “free range” operations.
There is growing popular concern about the harsh and inhumane conditions that farm animals endure in the production of meat, milk, and eggs. The animals suffer both physical and psychological distress, and hundreds of millions die before reaching the slaughterhouse every year. Consumers are appalled to learn about abusive agriculture practices, and they are increasingly seeking more humane alternatives. In response to evolving attitudes and the growing demand for alternatives to factory farm products, food retailers have developed a variety of marketing schemes to suggest that meat, milk, and eggs are being produced on farms where the animals are treated well. But, most of these claims are grossly misleading and do not accurately describe the animals’ living conditions.
Farmers and food retailers have an economic incentive to overstate animal welfare claims because doing so increases the price consumers are willing to pay and increases the industry’s profit margin without requiring that they implement meaningful reforms in the production system. The strong demand for alternatives to factory farms, coupled with the lack of supply and an inadequate infrastructure to oversee accurate labeling and enforce higher production standards, means that consumers are paying premium prices for sub premium products. Animal foods marketed as “humane” or “free range” commonly come from stressful, overcrowded farms that don’t match citizens’ expectations. We are concerned that in the absence of a clearly defined and meticulously enforced “free range” label program, well-meaning consumers will continue to be misled.
We are grateful that the USDA is attempting to address this significant and evolving problem, and is seeking to provide consumers with accurate information to enable informed food choices. We urge the Agency to incorporate the suggestions above, and to take necessary steps to provide meaningful oversight and to require accurate marketing practices.
Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have questions or if there is anything we can do to help.
President & Co-Founder