It used to be that buying eggs required only minimal decision-making. Look at the price, although fresh eggs are rarely offered at sale prices — check. Open carton, make sure none of the eggs are cracked — check. Place in shopping cart — done.

In the past few years, however, eggs, dairy, and meat and poultry products now display all manner of label claims: Organic, grassfed, cage-free, free-range, vegetarian-fed, and the ubiquitous “humanely raised.”

Advocates of all stripes like to argue that the plethora of labeling claims is sowing consumer confusion — at best — and much worse, fomenting anger and resentment (allegedly) among the public for the (alleged) mistreatment of farm animals.

The proposed solution to the former is tougher regulatory control over what producers and marketers are allowed to put on packages, coupled with tighter definitions of the actual terms themselves.

We’ll get to that in a moment.

As for the consumer pressure that’s supposedly driving the push to develop labeling that addresses animal handling and production practices, I believe it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: Did the concerns of a vocal minority push processors to shift their marketing to address those concerns, or did market segmentation provide opportunities to create product distinctions that could be sold at a premium?

It’s likely a little of Column A, and a little of Column B.

More Than a Piece of Paper

Labeling should be as transparent as possible, of course, both from a consumer right-to-know perspective and so the label claims create some leverage in the marketplace. On that basis, it’s fair to say that the various labeling initiatives for animal food products have fallen short of those objectives.

There are three problems, in ascending order of importance.

First, there is no consensus on the definition of “humane” or “humanely raised,” which are the key terms marketers prefer to plaster on their packaging. USDA’s definition of “organic” and “organically grown” focus on attributes that can be verified by testing: the use of antibiotics, hormones, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, etc. It’s relatively easy to secure samples of soil or products, send them to a lab and verify compliance with a high degree of accuracy.

But the trend in labeling isn’t about documenting the absence of additives of undesirable residues, it’s about describing the conditions in which farm animals are raised, and for those label claims, USDA only requires a written statement “explaining the meaning of the animal welfare or environmental stewardship claim and the controls used for ensuring that the raising claim is valid from birth to harvest.”

In some cases, that documentation would be substantial, but no matter how detailed, it doesn’t mean much unless independent, third-party certification is required. Anybody can pull together a cogent, well-structured description of the wonderful, progressive animal husbandry protocol in place across their operations.

Without rigorous inspection by a competent, certified external inspector, however, it carries about as much weight as the paper it’s written on.

A parallel issue is the validity of the standards that an experienced, qualified inspector is tasked to verify. Those standards need to be objective, scientifically based and vetted by experts with a background in production agriculture, as opposed to expertise in policy development.

Bottom line, placing claims about humane housing or living conditions, the absence of objectionable additives and/or the promotion of feeding or management requirements is only the first step. Even the companies that employ legitimate inspectors, that adhere to independently verified standards, that compile accurate data on operational practices still need to explain what that all means to consumers who never have, and never will, set foot on a farm or feedlot.

A small minority will apply their scrupulous purity standards that require that farm animals’ “lifestyles” are comparable to middle-class humans.

But most of the folks pushing shopping carts past the meat and dairy cases just want to have confidence that the labeling they (may or may not) examine is not just compelling but credible.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.