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Humane on the Brain

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In a poll conducted last year by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, 58% of consumers said it’s important to them that supermarkets stock humanely labeled food. That’s a lot of consumers who are — or would like to be — compassionate carnivores. Retailers like Safeway and Whole Foods, both of which recently updated their animal welfare guidelines, have tuned in to the trend. Same with many restaurants, including fast-casual chain Chipotle, whose sales have gone gangbusters since they started selling humanely raised meat from Bell & Evans, Niman Ranch and others.

cows.jpgMany supermarkets have started selling cage-free eggs, free-range chicken and beef, and other selections that make a specific humane treatment claim. Some have also begun sourcing meats verified by humane advocacy organizations, like the American Humane Association’s “American Humane Certified” label.

Acknowledging this popularity, the WSPA recently ranked the top 25 supermarket chains on their availability of humanely labeled foods. Whole Foods came out on top, nearly doubling the score of the runner-up company, Wegmans Food Markets. Also scoring high were Harris Teeter, Kroger, and — in a bit of vindication for its recent seafood snub from Greenpeace — Publix.

The WSPA based its rankings not only on the number of humanely labeled foods carried, but the integrity of the labels: How many aspects of animal care were covered? Were the standards verified by a third party? Cage free, free range and grass fed labels were dubbed “A Good Start;” pasture raised and USDA organic were classified as “Even Better;” and third-party certifications were “The Best.”

This sort of system could be helpful for consumers, but more than anything it highlights just how fractious and confusing such labeling is. Consumers are prepared to pay a premium for animal welfare, but how do they choose between pasture raised, free range and Certified Humane? Can they even parse their values in such a fashion?

This is definitely something for supermarkets to ponder. In the meantime, they need to back everything up with transparent marketing and education.

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