Sustainability seems to be one of the hottest topics in the food industry with manufacturers investing in new eco-friendly packaging, restaurants stopping their use of plastic straws and major food companies joining forces to reduce their ecological footprints. However, food companies must not forget another important factor in their sustainability goals: animal welfare. In fact, a recent ASPCA and Technomic study, involving 300 supermarket decision makers, revealed that food companies that produce animal welfare certified products experience strong sales in the grocery space.
Although these findings sound encouraging, the study also found that many supermarket decision makers do not know the difference between animal welfare claims and animal welfare certifications. The main difference is that these decision makers do not see the importance of verifying their animal welfare commitments with audits and official standards.
“We are encouraged by the fact that retailers are responding to consumers’ demand for products that promise better animal welfare,” said Nancy Roulston, Director of Corporate Engagement, ASPCA Farm Animal Welfare Campaign. “However, this survey reveals confusion about which labels and claims are meaningful and which are empty marketing – fueling further confusion for shoppers and creating an environment ripe for ‘welfare washing.’ It is critical that retailers recognize which animal welfare claims are meaningful and relay that knowledge to their shoppers.”
According to results from the survey, a vast majority of food companies produce products with animal welfare claims. However, only 40 to 60 percent of these food companies stock products with verified animal welfare certifications. Over 70 percent of those who invested in certifying their products reported an increase in sales over the past three years, in fact, this level of success is comparable to the success of mainstream claims such as “all-natural” and “organic.” Additionally, more than 30 percent of the surveyed supermarket decision makers claimed to be interested in investing in more humane food products.
These numbers are not surprising since 77 percent of American consumers have been found to be concerned about the welfare of farm animals, according to another study conducted by the ASPCA. This why 69 percent of consumers scan food labels for information on the ethical treatment of farm animals. About 28 percent of the consumers that do not look for such product qualities claim that they are just not sure about what labels to look for. Other reasons as to why consumers do not look for animal welfare indications on product labels include cost and not associating meat with the animals they came from.
However, consumers might be concerned to find out that many retailers are confused about animal welfare claims. ASPCA’s survey asked retailers to describe their understanding of a comprehensive list of animal welfare-related claims and only 40 percent of participants said that they have a “very good” understanding of such animal-welfare claims. Ironically, some of these survey participants believed that unverified claims such as “natural” or “hormone-free” were more reliable in identifying animal welfare than verified certification programs such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved and Global Animal Partnership. In fact, 95 percent of supermarket industry decision makers claimed that “cage-free” was a very good term to indicate the welfare of chickens in chicken meat products, even though cages are not used to raise chickens for meat anyways.
Nevertheless, consumers seem to be just as confused when it comes to animal welfare claims with 35 to 65 percent of them believing in unverified animal welfare claims such as “free range” and “natural.” However, many of these consumers also claim to be unsure about false-label claims which is why 78 percent of them indicated to the ASPCA that there needs to be a third-party regulatory body in charge of certifying animal welfare claims. In addition, 67 percent of these consumers said that they would purchase certified animal welfare products even it means a price increase.
Currently, there are seven certified animal welfare claims in the food space: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership, American Humane Certified, Certified Organic, American Grassfed Certified and Food Alliance Certified. All other claims that indicate animal welfare are not backed by auditors.
Just as the sustainability trend is inspiring food companies to reduce their plastic use and overall environmental footprint, the animal welfare trend is expected to have the same influence in the food industry in the next few years. As this trend continues to grow, consumers are likely to become more educated on certified animal welfare claims, which will inspire more food companies to invest in certifying their products.