Why Some Food Labels Are More Trustworthy Than Others

At a small, family-run dairy farm near Bath, England, cows are suffering. You wouldn't know that by looking at the label, though. In fact, you might think the opposite.

Analysis Food Food Labeling

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Picture three packets of cheese. The first is handmade with cow’s milk from a small, family-run organic dairy farm in a picturesque village near Bath, England. The second is plant-based and produced by a major brand. The third is real dairy made from genetically engineered microbes instead of cow’s milk. Which one would you buy? 

Judging purely by the label, the first, the one that is handmade from organic cow’s milk, might seem like the most natural, ethical choice, but a new undercover investigation by UK nonprofit Animal Justice Project shows that there is more to this packet of cheese than meets the eye. 

In seven months of secret filming at Park Farm, an organic dairy in southwest England that sells handmade, artisan cheese as The Bath Soft Cheese Co, Animal Justice Project uncovered “callous kicking, slapping, punching, yelling and swearing at cows; the desperation and anguish of calves who cried for days after being separated from their mothers; and the pitiful individual housing afforded to youngsters for up to a month post-separation preventing play and other normal, social behaviors.” 

Commenting on the findings, veterinarian Dr. Molly Vasanthakumar said, “The footage presented by Animal Justice Project reveals unacceptable methods of handling cattle. Cows are rushed through slippery, slurry-filled concrete walkways, hit with gates and alkathene pipes, and shouted/sworn at.”

“Bath Soft Cheese really is milking its ‘high welfare’ status,” says Claire Palmer, Director of Animal Justice Project. “Footage captured on this multi-award-winning organic dairy is in stark contrast to the image portrayed by the farm.”

Park Farm told the Daily Mail that it is “horrified” by the scenes of violence and that a worker has been sacked. Following the release of the footage, supermarket chain Planet Organic has stopped selling Bath Soft Cheese while it conducts its own investigation into the farm, and organic retailer Abel & Cole has dropped the brand with no plans to reintroduce it. 

Consumer expectations versus reality

Until now, people who buy from Bath Soft Cheese have had no way of knowing what happens behind closed doors at Park Farm. This is a common problem, not just in dairy farming but in all animal agriculture. Customer expectations of food labels such as “humanely-raised,” “organic,” and “free-range” often don’t match up with the realities of what life is like for farmed animals. 

According to a new survey by NGO Farm Forward, only 9 to 11 percent of Americans have an accurate understanding of the real meaning behind the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) independent welfare certification labels which are found on meat sold by Whole Foods Market. 

“GAP is the largest third-party animal welfare certification in the US, yet it deceives shoppers into paying more for meat, poultry, and eggs that appear more humane and sustainable, when, in reality, many are still factory-farmed,” said Ben Goldsmith, chief strategist for Farm Foward. 

Even products that really do come from farms with higher-than-average welfare practices are often not what they seem. The fact that Park Farm, which has fewer than 200 cows, is technically not a factory farm does not mean that the way the animals are treated would be acceptable in the eyes of consumers. For example, studies have shown widespread opposition to disbudding, the burning of a calf’s horn tissue with a hot iron, and the early separation of calves from their mothers. Both of these are common practices at Park Farm.  

Although widely associated with higher welfare, Park Farm’s organic label is no guarantee that the treatment of farmed animals is in any way humane. While the certification means that the animals have not been routinely fed antibiotics, it does not protect them against objectification, violence, or brutal deaths. 

Misleading claims

The problem is not just that labels lack clarity, but that meat and dairy producers intentionally mislead the public about the way animals are treated. The reality would make any conscientious consumer feel uncomfortable, so farms would rather keep it to themselves.

In August this year, Bath Soft Cheese held an open day where the public could visit the farm, meet the animals, and see how the company creates its award-winning cheeses. Sounds like they have nothing to hide, right? Or maybe they do. An Animal Justice Project investigator who attended the open day said that the small pens where calves are kept on a regular day at the farm had been taken apart and replaced with larger ones. When investigators returned four days later, the calves were once again in small pens.

As well as being given a false impression of where the young animals are housed, visitors weren’t shown the full story when it comes to how milk is made. They witnessed the milking itself but not the misery of cow-calf separation. Mother cows form a strong bond with their babies soon after birth, much like humans do. According to the investigation, calves at Park Farm are dragged away from their mothers at just three days old, enough time for that bond to have grown even stronger. AJP says that this harrowing experience left one baby calf crying almost non-stop for more than 39 hours while his mother seemed to be trying to find him. 

Bath Soft Cheese claims that its milk and cheese are “produced in a way that protects our natural world,” but there is nothing natural about stealing calves from their mothers for the sake of high-end cheese. 

Eating habits are hard to change 

Animal Justice Project’s new investigation is proof that shoppers can never really be sure of what is beyond the label on any animal products. It’s difficult enough to discern between what comes from a factory farm and what doesn’t. It’s even harder to fully imagine what kind of life the animal lived.

In one survey, 75 percent of U.S. consumers claimed that “knowing the animal did not suffer when it was raised on the farm” is either somewhat or very important to them when deciding what to buy. The only way to be confident that no cows, pigs, chickens, or sheep were harmed for your meal is to choose animal-free proteins, yet many shoppers seem reluctant to align their eating habits with their values. This hesitancy, or in some cases opposition, to change is thought to be due to a variety of personal, practical, and social barriers. Among these are concerns about the cost of meat and dairy alternatives; negative perceptions about taste, texture, and nutritional value; the idea that these options are less natural; and a fear of what other people will think. 

These barriers could soon disappear. Vegan diets have been found to be cheaper than typical diets, meat alternatives are becoming more like the real thing, and plant-based foods are increasingly mainstream. More people than ever before are turning away from conventional meat and dairy towards options that are kinder to animals and the environment.

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