What does “humane” mean? Legally, not much

Mulling words. “Humanely Raised.” “Humanely Handled.” You see these terms on labels in the grocery aisle. You assume that these are regulated claims. Turns out, however, that producers and processors get to define these terms according to their own standards. And there is no mechanism to verify them.

Products can be labeled “humane” even if the animals were raised on standard factory farms.

The wild world of unverified claims is revealed by a set of proposed guidelines just published by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the agency responsible for meat, eggs, and poultry labeling. The guidelines ask producers and processors themselves to simply define elsewhere on a product’s package what these terms mean. And the terms can be so narrowly construed that (as FSIS acknowledged in a response to a query from the Huffington Post) products can be labeled “humane” even if the animals were raised on standard factory farms.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute’s consumer’s guide to food labels, agencies like FSIS are “merely verifying that the producer has met its own standards, and as such the claim may simply represent a marketing tactic with little or no relevance to animal welfare.”

Jeffrey Kittay is the founder and publisher of The Counter. He previously was the founder and editor-in-chief of the legendary Lingua Franca magazine, a winner of the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.