Terms like “free-range,” “pasture-raised,” “grass-fed,“ and “antibiotic-free,” can cause consumers’ eyes to glaze over. According to a national survey released recently by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), consumers don’t know the true meaning of those phrases, but their perceptions of the terms can have a major influence on animal agriculture and the practices used.

"Americans are increasingly concerned about the welfare of farm animals and want to make a difference when shopping for food, but are understandably confused by a number of misleading or meaningless labels," said Daisy Freund, director, ASPCA Farm Animal Welfare Program in a news release.

The online survey performed earlier this year by Lake Research Partners queried 1,000 American adults who purchase or consume meat, eggs or dairy products, drawn from a national sample of internet users. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.1%. Here’s a look at some of the results.

Free-Range and Pasture-Raised
The survey found 65% of consumers believe the term "free-range" ensures that the animal spent most of its time in a pasture. While ASPCA stated there was “no legal definition” of the term free-range, that’s not exactly true. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) states for an animal to be considered free-range or free-roaming, “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry (and livestock) have been allowed access to the outside.”

PORK Network asked Veronika Medina, public affairs specialist in the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education at the agency about the term “pasture-raised,” and she said, “This means that the animals had continuous free access to the outdoors for 50% or a significant portion of their lives.” 

When asked how a producer demonstrates to the Agency that animals have been allowed access to the outside, Medina said, “The producer must show in their brief raising protocol that the animals from which the products are derived had continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for at least 50% of their lives. Thus, feedlot-raised animals that were confined and fed for any portion of their lives are not amenable to the meaning of these terms. They would explain where the door or entry/exit way allows access, or sometimes they provide pictures.”

No Hormones
Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry, even though, understandably, consumers are confused when they see the claim “no hormones added” because it implies hormones are added to other products. The FSIS states, “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry “unless it is followed by a statement that says ‘Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.’”

PORK Network wanted to know why the label would even be approved, if hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry, and received this unsatisfying response from Medina: “It is factual claim and the disclaimer statement about USDA not permitting hormones in pork or chicken ensures the claim is not misleading, i.e., the consumer will understand that hormones are not permitted so they will know that all pork and chicken has to be raised without the use of hormones.” 

“No Antibiotics Added” or “Raised Without Antibiotics”
Consumers may intermingle these terms, but they mean very different things. The FSIS states “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics. That documentation includes:

  • A brief description of the raising of the animals from birth to harvest, including segregation protocol and what happens when the animals get sick
  • A complete, current feed formulation using common or usual language or copies of feed tags
  • A signed affidavit on company letterhead verifying all claims on the label are true

“Raised without antibiotics” means that the animals were never given antibiotics at any point of their lifespan, by any means, according to FSIS. “If animals become sick, then they should be removed from the flock/herd raised without antibiotics and cannot bear the claim,” stated Medina. “The supporting documentation should entail how the producers segregated the animals if they become sick and require antibiotics, as stated above.”

Monitoring Animal Welfare
Nearly 50% of those surveyed believe that an independent inspector verifies the health and welfare of animals living on most farms. “Actually there is no independent inspection or oversight of animal welfare on the vast majority of farms - a fact that sparked concern in three quarters of survey takers,” stated the ASPCA.

The pork industry is taking steps to address this concern. It may be true that the “vast majority of farms” don’t have independent oversight, but pork operations that raise large numbers of animals do (see April issue of PORK Network, “Prepare to be Audited” beginning on page 16).

“Third party auditing is widespread across many businesses,” said Dr. Monique Pairis-Garcia in a PORK Network article earlier this year. She is in the animal science department at The Ohio State University. “When we talk about maintaining the trust of the consumer, this brings credibility and transparency.”

Dr. Chris Rademacher, Extension swine veterinarian at Iowa State University, served on the subcommittee that helped develop the training for the third-party auditors. Rademacher said the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO) will train independent, third-party auditors to do the audits of sites selected at random by the packer.

“The primary reason for this was to create a standardized set of criteria for each question that the auditors could follow, in an attempt to minimize auditor-to-auditor variation,” he said. “A key understanding is that the auditors work for the packer who commissioned them to come to the site and perform the Common Swine Industry Audit. The results will go back to the packer and the producer will get a copy.”

Auditors must pass a swine proficiency test prior to starting the CSIA auditor three-day training. The training teaches auditors how to assess each question on the audit.

Read Between the Lines
The ASPCA positions itself as non-partisan compared to groups like the Humane Society for the United States, which has an end-goal of no animals used for meat production. However, its news release said the vast majority of animals raised for food in the U.S. “exist in inhumane factory-like facilities.”

Conversely, the American Humane Association (AHA) works with animal agriculture to find solutions to welfare issues told. Mark Stubis, chief communications officer for AHA, told PORK Network the study results are consistent with other surveys which confirm the importance a large majority of consumers place on animal welfare.

“We agree third-party verification is important to the credibility of label claims,” Stubis said. “American Humane Association’s farm animal certification program was the first such program and is the largest in America. Our standards are based on the best scientific knowledge from experts like Temple Grandin.”