Digging Deeper on Labels: What Does "Certified Humane" Really Mean?



Competition to get you to a grocery store is higher than ever before. With a fierce marketplace and incredibly diverse set of consumer demands, grocers are working hard to get you to their store and make you a loyal customer.

Retailers’ most common weapon in the battle for loyalty seems to be providing murky information to a consumer that is bombarded with claims about farm production practices, what it means to eat healthy, and how to bring value to the kitchen table. Before I go on, I’d like to point out the importance of filling various consumer demands. Everyone chooses different products to fit their own set of personal values and farmers and food processors need to keep a close eye on what that means.

Another very important point, is my absolute disgust with companies taking advantage of the fear and guilt we all feel at various times, to confuse us in order to make a sale.

It’s why I think Sobeys was very smart in getting a spokesperson like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to improve their brand as a retailer of very high-quality, fresh product. However, I’m not only surprised, but also confused about their new support of a third-party label from the United States known as Certified Humane for beef, chicken and pork.

The idea was Oliver’s, according to him in a promotional video — he wanted to see Sobeys raise their product standards. It’s a noble crusade, but one that I cannot support, given the nature of a term like Certified Humane. It uses a consumer’s guilty conscience, as well as confusing and misleading information, to pit farmer against farmer and one production practice against another.

My frustration starts with a YouTube video on Sobeys channel that serves as an introduction to “Certified Humane Meats”. Using phrases like, ‘We traveled across the country, visiting some of the best ethical farms and ranches in Canada,” leads off my impression of how Sobeys and Oliver decided that strict government standards aren’t enough, and that they should be the judge of what is ethical and what is not.

It gets better.

“Offering the consumer something that is a good trade up from where they are at, at the moment,” is another quote that takes away any sense of differentiating a product and trumps the practice as better than what other farmers are producing. Forget that other farmers are producing equally safe foods. Instead, feel guilty about the meat you may have bought last week. Don’t worry, you can feel better if you come and buy ours.

It begs the questions: if you are using a standard that all farmers need to follow, shouldn’t you state that fact instead?

Clicking to see what Sobeys has to say about the program adds an enormous amount of confusion into what is and isn’t humane. Their first bullet point says, “That means farm animals are raised right with a nutritious diet and no antibiotics or hormones.” When highlighting beef production in the YouTube video it states, “Never given any form of antibiotics or growth hormones,” while the pork segment states, “Cage free, antibiotic free and fed an all vegetable diet.” The chicken that fits the program puts it as, “Here the chickens are raised on an all vegetable diet free of antibiotics, the way nature intended it.”

It begs a critical question about raising animals. When an animal is sick, should it be given an antibiotic? My unwavering opinion is yes, as I see it to be cruel to let an animal suffer. So, how can a program called “Certified Humane”, not allow a sick animal to be healed by the science of antibiotics as Sobeys and Oliver suggest? The truth is they do!

Checking the standards, in the case of beef, “Antibiotics can be used in individual cattle only therapeutically (i.e. disease treatment) as directed by a licensed veterinarian.” When I went to Humane Farm Animal Care asking for clarification on what it means to be antibiotics free, their CEO/Executive Director Adele e-mailed back saying, “The reason we allow for disease treatment is that we have seen on some farms where programs do not allow for antibiotics for disease treatment where farmers will let the animals become near death before they seek treatment because once they seek treatment, they can’t sell the animal for that program and receive a premium for that animal.  We thought that was inhumane and that is why we allow for antibiotic use for disease treatment.”

I agree with that.

In a later e-mail focusing on the subject of pork, she noted , “On the rare occasion that an animal is sick, the animal can be given antibiotics as prescribed by a veterinarian and the withdrawal times are carefully monitored so that when the animal goes to slaughter there is no antibiotic residue in the animal’s body.” Douglass goes on to say, “So the statement, antibiotic free is quite true!”

Marketing wise, that is a dirty game.

All animals given antibiotics, no matter the production practice, are required to not be slaughtered unless withdrawal times are met. It begs the questions: if you are using a standard that all farmers need to follow, shouldn’t you state that fact instead – or are you trying to build on misinformation that already exists, with the simple goal of out-selling the competition? Plus, does the consumer understand withdrawal times, or are they buying the product because they believe the animal was never treated with an antibiotic? My guess is it is the latter.

No chicken or pork produced in Canada are given growth promotants or hormones,

There is also a lot of talk about no growth promotants or hormones. No chicken or pork produced in Canada are given growth promotants or hormones, but I can’t find Sobeys bringing that information to light. Instead they boast about chicken that is hormone free saying it is not only healthier, but also the right thing to do. High self-praise when it is exactly how ever other chicken in the country is produced.

Beef in Canada can be produced with growth promotants that have been proven safe and effective at improving the animals’ ability to turn the feed they eat into meat on their bones. Sobeys says that is better for the planet, but research says it means 10 percent more greenhouse gases. “Better for the planet,” is a catchy line when you don’t have all the facts.

Other statements in the Certified Humane standards include, “Chickens must be fed a wholesome and nutritious diet” and, “When cattle are housed, they must have access to water at all times,” and “For summer conditions, provision must be made to protect pigs from heat stress.” These are standards across the entire industry. They are not unique to Sobeys, Oliver, or the Certified Humane label.

In e-mails with Douglass, there was a point she wanted to be very clear on: the fact sub-therapeutic antibiotics are not allowed. These are given to many cows, pigs and chickens in low levels to prevent disease, similar to vaccines (which are very much allowed under the Certified Humane program). I checked with a local vet that deals with a lot of cows. He put the issue bluntly. “Antibiotics in feed are like socialism. Most of the population can do without, but there are a few that will benefit from them being in there.” He adds, “For the animal that needs antibiotics in feed, it is inhumane not to have them.” He wanted to make something else very clear: “Many antibiotics in feed are only in starter rations in feedlots and are added when a disease process is beginning in a pen or group.”

It proves that using the term Certified Humane is an interesting trick for Sobeys. It makes the consumer feel good. It also pits one farmer and proven production practice, against another by confusing the consumer into what is and isn’t happening on today’s farms.

If Sobeys and Oliver want to head down a road of differentiated production practices while introducing consumers to the people that produce the food, I commend them. But if they want to slam other farmers, who are working equally as hard, as being unethical simply because they’re using a different system, then the real cruelty is coming from a head office that’s trying to guilt you into their grocery store. It’s time for some fact-based food education to hit store shelves instead.

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