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.

27 thoughts on “Digging Deeper on Labels: What Does “Certified Humane” Really Mean?

  1. Good read but I wonder if the overall message should be directed at marketing practices in general. It does not seem to matter if you are selling meat or a new truck, a common marketing ploy is to prey on the unaware consumer. Dodge would have me believe that the Ram has some sort of power that can’t be found in an F-150 or a Silverado but at the end of the day all three models are going to do the same thing…get me and my stuff from A to B.

    Anytime animal welfare is brought in as a marketing ploy it is going to pit one production practice against another. Would a label like “Enhanced Humane” be better? I really don’t know the right answer. I do think it is important to point out that there is widespread antibiotic use in poultry and pork production that is included in feed purely for growth promotion so the claim that there is no growth promotants in pork or poultry production is misleading to the reader. To me, this is a key point of differentiation that is very clear to the consumer.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article on this snowy day

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Stewart. I think your first point is a good one that we can look at. Dodge is specific in saying that the Ram has some sort of power that can’t be found in an F150. They then give access to information backing up that claim. It’s a focused point, rather than just a sticker on the truck that says ‘Better’. We’d never buy our truck with that little of information – why are we doing it in our food? In food – we are trying to push every production practice into a word or two, rather than focus on what actually makes it different. The beef in this is not produced with growth hormones. Why is merely stating that not good enough. Why do we go and say it is Better for the Planet without data behind it.

      I think the answer really is about more information as to the different in the food – rather than trying to one-up the guy across the road, hoping no one catches on.

  2. I’ve ruminated on this post for a couple of days, and the more I do, the more apparent the assumptions, fallacies, and hypocrisy become.

    First, Mr. Campbell makes some pretty hefty assumptions about what drives consumer
    decisions. Is a desire to support humane animal treatment really about fear and guilt? “A guilty conscience” isn’t the only thing that motivates farmers to treat their animals well, so why should we assume it’s the only thing that would motivate a consumer to support an animal welfare label claim?

    An explanation of how the term “Certified Humane” is used to “pit farmer against farmer and one production practice against another” would also be very helpful. It doesn’t say “certified more humane” or “most humane” or “only humane” – it even avoids using that “b” word that got so many people hating A&W. They also state they visited “some” of the best ethical farms, not the only ones, or not even all of them. The program is voluntary and open to all. Doesn’t sound very divisive to me.

    Maybe what we really need to hear is an explanation of how to describe and market a
    differentiated product that could not be possibly interpreted as being, well, um, … different! (I suppose, though, not many would object if a product was marketed as “worse” than the status quo or a “trade down”, so maybe that’s the solution – wonder how many takers there will be on that idea?)

    While he claims to be “digging deeper” into the label, Mr. Campbell manages to say very
    little about the depth and breadth of the standards themselves, choosing instead to focus on antibiotics and hormones. Even the investigation into the antibiotic issue is framed by the fallacy that antibiotics are a cure-all and the “only” option for disease treatment, in addition to a clearly one-sided case for the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics. By leaving out counter-arguments and a broader context, Mr. Campbell leads the reader into agreeing with his “dirty game” conclusion.

    In fact, the only real indication that other farmers or production practices are being
    “slammed” as “unethical” (that isn’t insinuated by the author alone), is an email quote from the HFAC CEO who accuses some farmers of being “inhumane” by withholding antibiotics for too long. Rather than question the source or accuracy of this claim, which is a clear and obvious attack on certain farmers in an blatant effort to promote the Certified Humane brand, Mr. Campbell simply states “I agree with that.”

    If Mr. Campbell wants to protect the status quo or his own production practices by
    telling the story of his farm, I commend him. But if he wants to participate in slamming other farmers – who are working equally as hard – as being unethical simply because they’re using a different system; or, if he wants to make unsupported allegations that other differentiated marketing efforts are doing the same, I’d suggest a long, hard look in the mirror before his next rant.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Rob. An important point first. My farm has no involvement in beef, pork or chicken production – which is what these labels involve. This label doesn’t impact my business, so I don’t financially gain or lose in this ‘rant’. Marketing in food interests me. That’s the reason I write on the subject.

      The reason I focused most on antibiotics and hormones is because these are the areas Sobeys and Oliver focus on. They don’t talk about the pages of standards ( which are linked in the article). They talk about the issues that are most likely to impact a consumers decision at the meat counter – and today that is the unknown of hormones and antibiotics. Plus I never stated antibiotics were a cure all. But certainly no antibiotics can’t be considered a cure all either. And the wording in many of these gives the impression that no antibiotics were used, when they could have been. I boil at misleading like that.

      I guess where I’m starting to wear thin is the idea that marketing in food is getting away from real health benefits of the nutrition in a steak or the vitamins in apples. Instead it is becoming more and more about using terms like ‘Better for the planet’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘Gluten-free’ on a pack of celery (http://www.nurselovesfarmer.com/2014/01/we-are-lucky-to-have-the-choice-of-what-food-we-buy/#idc-container). They are terms that make us feel good, but when asked what it definitively means – and we realize food production isn’t black or white. One isn’t better than another — it’s different.

      So why not advertise as different – instead of “a good trade up from where they are at, at the moment,” without offering real information into various production practices.

      If you feel I’m pitting farmer against farmer, that certainly isn’t my intention Rob – and I apologize. However, when I see claims that I feel are misleading – I’m going to point them out. I’ve got a whole white board full of them. Thinking the claim ‘Hormone-free chicken’ might be next….when we both know that natural hormones that are there whether we like it or not – make that awfully hard.

      1. Hi Andrew, thanks for the response. I do agree that the way they advertise re: antibiotics and what their standard actually says is misleading. (Although you still seem to be caught in a false dichotomy between antibiotics and no antibiotics, failing to acknowledge equally effective alternatives – see http://bit.ly/1fbJfs7).

        I also get upset at labels on branded products that make specific claims that are also true of the product in general – “gluten-free” celery is a great example – at the very least, it should state that all celery is gluten-free. (I’ve made a point of protesting this when it occurs with respect to GMOs – salt and tomatoes, for example). These are cases where one brand is obviously trying to gain market share by taking advantage of consumer ignorance

        However, the situation becomes much less clear-cut when we start talking about generalized terms or broad claims backed by a specific set of standards. For me, it seems rather futile, even ridiculous, to object to a term when no one would ever want to claim the opposite. “Inhumane”, “Worse Beef”, “Unsustainably-produced” – they’re laughable, right? These kind of terms are very difficult to precisely define, so it becomes an marketing job to convince the consumer to buy into it – place designations, or even the term local are the same – they’re dependent on creating associations with the term, and unless someone can point to a precise definition and demonstrate non-compliance, objecting to it is rather pointless, in my opinion.

        One of the better tools to create an association and protect it from infringement is to create a standard and a verification process to back it up. This is what the organic sector has done, and what the “Certified Humane” designation is obviously trying to do. Consumers then develop a general, “big picture” association with the term, and individual consumers may buy into it for a variety of reasons (some with a better understanding and more rational basis than others, to be sure). Debates over the specifics of those standards will happen, both inside and outside of the group using the term, and I would argue that they are a natural and beneficial thing, provided they are fact-based and respectful.

        But in all of this, I don’t see the need to automatically assume that these are divisive tactics or that they are playing on fear and guilt of the consumer. In fact, I think that claiming such is actually preying on the fears of farmers.

    2. I think the issue is that by stating ‘this’ beef/chicken/pork is ‘certified humane’, then all other beef/chicken/pork is NOT certified humane, and therefore the thought is in the purchaser’s mind that it is not raised in a humane way for some reason. This brings about the ‘inhumane’ or ‘worse beef’ or ‘unsustainably-produced’, because if there is a label for the positive, then the rest is NOT under the umbrella of that label. That is the problem. Especially since the standards for all the beef/pork/chicken across Canada are already pretty high, and the certified humane label is only a label.

      1. Exactly…they are saying one is better than the other when in truth they are both the same….trying to fearmonger consumers into buying their product instead. This is what has everyone disgusted with!

  3. A very Interesting article, playing upon our guilt is basically what started the Vegan diet trend some years ago. You also make some amazing and inciteful points about the reality of antibiotic use, and I am inclined to agree. However I would point out that peoples guilt should play a role here since horrible things have happened in the industry and people want reassurance that what they buy has not been tortured. At least this labeling system makes an attempt at an alternative for those who care, if it trends then perhaps it will encourage other companies to raise the bar. Competition, in this case can be beneficial for consumers and the animals, I like these certifications because at least we see an attempt at bettering the farming process, that’s action not just talk, so lets give the humane movement a few points of encouragement, and if its not perfect, we’ll try to make it better! Thanks!

    1. The out sourcing that Earl’s had originally intended to do was with Creekstone Farms of Kansas. Earl’s was claiming the Certified Humane label. All of Creekstone Farms slaughter is done to Certified Halal requirements, ~ there is absolutely NOTHING humane, certified or otherwise, about this method of slaughter. The animals are confined to hold them still enough and then their throats are slit open while the animal is still fully alive and aware. Re your comment: “since horrible things have happened in the industry and people want reassurance that what they buy has not been tortured.” The labelling system Certified Humane, is just that, A LABEL, nothing else!! People are being duped my friend, totally duped. Watch a video of how this slaughtering is done and then let us know if you still feel it is humane.

      1. Wanda – what is the source of your comment that “slaughter is done to Certified Halal requirements, ~ there is absolutely NOTHING humane, certified or otherwise, about this method of slaughter. The animals are confined to hold them still enough and then their throats are slit open while the animal is still fully alive and aware.”?

  4. For me, the need is more basic. I want to know that the beef or steak I am buying over the counter was raised with all the usual “humane” attributes (plenty of room, good nutrition, etc) and that no shortcuts were taken in order to increase profitability at the expense of the animals in question. I will leave the debate of what is the best amount of anti-biotics etc. to the experts to settle on the best compromise, but obviously less is better in my mind. The REAL challenge I have is that when I buy from a supermarket, I have absolutely no idea where the meat is coming from, and how the animals are treated at that source. OK, so if you buy beef in a Canadian supermarket, it must come from a Canadian farm, subject to Canadian regulations. I’m not up to speed on all those regulations, but I would like to know if those regulations are adequate, and just how well they are followed and enforced. I have to wonder if the Canadian government is equipped to properly monitor and enforce. So when I see “Certified Humane” it makes me FEEL like there is some additional scrutiny going on. But that’s the trick right? Is there really? I don’t know, and it’s really hard to figure out. I would love to get a truly unbiased view of beef and chicken sold in Canadian supermarkets, but still can’t find it. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

    1. Steph I can only talk about pork because I’m an ontario pork producers. You asked about where the pork comes from in your local supermarket, all ontario pork is labeled with “ontario pork” label, all others is not it might be canadian or canadian packaged so read labels if it’s not labeld I consider it not canadian. I’m a proud Ontario pork producers who are all CQA (canadian quality assurance ) and ACA (Animal care assessment ) certified and checked on yearly by visits on farm by certified vets. Otherwise we can’t sell our hogs. These certificates you can look up at Ontario pork website http://www.ontariopork.on.ca I hope this gives you some inside of of ontario produced pork. I can’t provide you with any other provinces info as my family lives in Ontario

    2. Steph Gauthier ~ As Jolanda pointed out, just because you are buying in a Canadian Supermarket, does not necessarily mean the product is Canadian. That’s “free trade” for you. In the Free Trade system we are not only required to accept a certain quota of product from other Countries, at times businesses here choose to buy off shore, because they feel it’s helps their bottom line. That leaves the consumer having no information on the product. We’ve been forced into a Global situation.

  5. Andrew, I am struck by the implicit confirmation bias in your article. It is spectacularly poorly written and argued. Let me start by saying you have fundamentally missed the point of humane farming, as well as confounded several different labels such as humane farmed, organic, free range, etc. The label antibiotic-free was never intended to imply that a sick animal would not be given antibiotics if it needed them. To even suggest that is silly. On factory farms, animals are routinely given antibiotics because they live under conditions that promote easy transmission of disease – overpopulation and poor sanitation (think third world countries). When these shortcomings are corrected by allowing the animals adequate room to roam (as they are on humane certified farms) the need for routine antibiotics is obviated. Your argument as presented is a classic strawman argument.

    Second, the inhumane treatment of non-human animals is, in fact, something we should feel guilty about. We routinely practice a false dominion over these animals – the chopping off of beaks on chicken farms, the caging of veal calls to indulge a person’s fetish for flavourless pale meat, the poking and prodding, and the deprivation of freedom to play and move. Nonhuman animals are still living creatures worthy of moral consideration and the reintroduction of humane farming respects this very fundamental truth while protecting meat lovers’ rights to eat meat. The promotion of such products does not prey on people’s guilt but rather caters to the morally responsible choices that we should all be making. Those who wish to dismantle the argument in favour of the humane treatment of nonhuman animals must first provide a good argument as to why the satisfaction of our tastebuds takes precedent over an animal’s needless suffering.

    Finally, the health benefits of humane farmed meats are plentiful. Most notably, because the animals are minimally stressed and actually what can properly be characterized as happy, their omega 3 levels soar while cortisol and steroids plummet. This has the effect of actually being much better for us when it comes to inflammation and cholesterol levels. Who would have thought that what is good for the animal ends up being good for us?


    1. “The label antibiotic-free was never intended to imply that a sick animal would not be given antibiotics if it needed them.”
      Now back to reality. There may have been someone involved with the development of the “antibiotic-free” label who envisioned honestly informing consumers. But this article is about marketing, and it’s undeniable that the simplistic term is not only literally false when applied to “Certified Humane”, but is clearly used as deception in marketing. And the implication is very effective; consumers who consider antibiotic treatment an important factor in their purchases are surprised and even incredulous when they’re informed that antibiotic treatment is permitted within the label.
      Perhaps Campbell has edited his original article, because I couldn’t find where he says inhumane treatment of animals isn’t shameful. (Speaking of strawman.)

  6. Interesting discussion on this subject. My biggest beef, and Andrew touched on it is the misleading and false information right from our food labeling to these claims of (humane) that sells to a large group of people just because of the label! My question is why do we need the American label, when our Canadian standards are already exceeding their standards? Is it really Sobeys and Earls desire to feed us the best, or is it only a leg up on the competition? Call me sceptical, but in my life’s experience I have yet to meet a corporate entity who has my health as their top priority!


    1.) Drugs and other antibiotics are not cheap to purchase or to administer treatments. Producers worry about their profit margins.
    2,) Stores and restaurants cannot guarantee their meat is antibiotic or hormone free because they do not know where or which farm this meat came from.
    3.) Feed animals eat contain fertilizers, weed and insect sprays and other chemical residues…
    4.) Unhealthy animals are costly to maintain (sometimes die before being slaughtered )and do not produce good quality meats and/or profits.

  8. You forgot the ® in Certified Humane®. What everyone seems to be missing is that Certified Humane® is a private – as in “privately owned” and corporately registered – label and does not necessarily reflect national nor international standards of good practice in the industry. Certified Humane® is a corporate entity that has established itself as one more financial entity between the producer and the consumer. Certified Humane® is not a regulatory or industry body with ultimate interest in the safety of the consumer or the production of beef. It is a registered group with corporate and financial interests seeking to influence the market, control production and dictate the market for distinct profitability. That would be my thoughts on the subject. Now, I’m going to phone my broker and find out the cost to purchase shares in Certified Humane® since my investment in Canadian beef is plummeting. 🙂

  9. I can’t find any information of beef, pork etc. — how far they have to be transported in overcrowded trucks for long distance. This is not ‘just” inhumane. It’s downright cruel! Some woman was fined for giving pigs in transit some water at a traffic light. Unless I can find a farm where pigs are raised in as natural an environment as possible, taking into consideration the cold winters in Canada, I will not buy any form of pork, much as I like bacon etc. I use ‘Veggie substitutes’, & will do so unless or until someone can show me a farm where, from birth to death, pigs are raised in an ethical & caring manner.

  10. PS. I didn’t mention the reason for transportation of these animals — to be slaughtered. This opens up, not ‘a can of worms’, but a whole army of them. Animals should be transported to a facility that is close to the farms on which they were raised, in order to keep the stress level as low as possible. I would like to visit a farm near the Burlington area, where I could actually see what I read about. Photos & video clips can be extremely deceptive.

  11. While we should all be concerned about the humane treatment of animals, my main concern is my health. Research tells me that eating any kind of meat (beef, chicken or pork) that is fed “unnatural feed” laced with antibiotics and growth promototants (whatever those are?) is not healthy. By unnatural feed I mean “finishing” beef cows with GMO corn and soy adn similairly feeding pigs and chickens GMO produced food. So there are several concerns here. One being the anitbitocs and growth enhancers. A rancher I met recently told me that all beef produced in Ontario is “finished” in CAFOs and that they all get antibiotics otherwise they would get sick from “hoof rot” from standing in their own feces all day.

    Another concern is that cows are meant to eat grass, not corn and soy, especially GMO corn and soy. This is bad for the cows and bad for us. If there are any farmers out there who raise their animals naturally please let us know.

  12. Your points about a few features of “Certified Humane” standards make some sense, but overall, this organization does much to raise the living and dying standards of farm animals. You leave much unsaid, finding a few points to make that leave a reader without a broad picture.

Leave a Reply to Ken Benoit Cancel reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.