Let’s Rinse Away Humane Washing

Dec. 21, 2021

Why "Humane Washing" is the new "greenwashing."

Consumers are increasingly wary of “greenwashing” – phony attempts by companies, especially CPG companies, to appear ecologically responsible. Now comes a new concern: “humane washing.”

As you can probably guess, humane washing denotes lying about how well you’ve treated the animals from which you have extracted the meat, milk or eggs that you’re selling. Jessica Scott-Reid, a Canadian animal advocate, defines the term thoroughly and lays out its implications in a terrific article on Vox.com.

Consumers are becoming concerned over the brutal treatment of animals on factory farms; as Scott-Reid writes, “nearly all farmed animals are treated in ways that would be criminal if done to a dog or cat.” As a result, marketing and packaging claims of humane treatment are proliferating. According to SPINS data cited by Scott-Reid, meat products with animal-welfare claims increased 7.5% in the 12 months ending last Aug. 8; for eggs, claims of grass-fed and “pasture-raised” hens rose 7.4%.

But not all such claims are equally credible.

In the first place, terms like “shelter” and “humanely raised” are mere marketing claims that could mean anything, or nothing. As Scott-Reid points out, a hen in a tiny cage in a dank enclosure is technically in “shelter.”

A meatpacker wishing to claim that its products are “humanely raised” need only send a letter to the USDA explaining how they plan to put their humanity into effect. There are no standards, no visits, no follow-ups of any kind. Third-party certification is a viable option too – only in some cases, the “certifying” body is a trade group like the United Egg Producers, which has no problem with hens being caged 24/7.

Humane washing is nothing but cheating, engaged in by unscrupulous producers who aren’t interested in investing the time and money needed for truly humane animal treatment. As Scott-Reid points out, it “undermine[s] the small sliver of farmers who have put in the hard work to actually improve animal treatment.”

Scott-Reid proposes solutions that are likely to send chills down the spine of any humane washer: Better regulations, with stricter definitions and tougher enforcement; action by third-party business monitors like the National Advertising Division of  BBB National Programs (which ruled against Hatfield Quality Meats in a humane washing case); and lawsuits, which have already hit Tyson Foods and others.

This is an important issue that isn’t going to go away. I recommend reading the whole Vox article. Humane washers might one day wake up to find that consumers are treating them less than humanely.