Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy

Localism, Labels, and Animal Welfare

Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy

Localism, Labels, and Animal Welfare

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

As consumer attention to the source and quality of food has grown in recent years, so, too, has concern about the practices used to raise food. With criticism of mass agriculture and processed foods entering the mainstream, consumers are more aware of the variety of conditions endured by livestock, such as crowded cattle feedlots and cramped boxes for egg-laying hens. And there is evidence that consumers are sufficiently concerned about these conditions to change their buying habits accordingly.1 But there are few regulations that meaningfully address the welfare of the animals that supply much of the food on consumers' plates. Most animal welfare regulations apply to pets or activities that have historically captured public concern, such as rooster and dog fighting.2 And the few regulations that do address livestock typically only indirectly impact welfare by, for example, limiting pollution from large livestock operations. Some local governments and states have begun to directly regulate farm animal welfare-banning foie gras from force-fed geese and eggs from crate-bound hens, for example-but they represent the exception to the norm.3

Given the scant public law in this area, the best available means of influencing farm animal welfare appear to be market-based solutions explored in other contexts. The environmental law literature, in particular, documents a variety of non-regulatory mechanisms that can effect change,4 although the success of these approaches varies. In the food context, the most promising mechanisms to harness consumer choice and market forces in favor of animal welfare include verified labeling (particularly where producers can see declines in wholesale and retail sales and trace the consumer preferences associated with the decline); audit, inspection, and certification of farms and ranches; and, particularly for restaurants, procurement and supply chain certification. Indeed, some of these approaches are already employed in the food context. For example, there are a limited number of voluntary guidelines and certification programs to which both small and large farms subscribe.5 And it is increasingly common to see labels boasting that eggs are free range or that beef comes from pasture-raised cows,6 although these claims sometimes lack certification. Like greenwashing in the environmental context, many of these claims merely increase profit margins without providing meaningful or verifiable changes in producer practices.

With somewhat limited formal market mechanisms available-and questionable verification behind some of the common animal welfare claims-many consumers who are concerned about animal welfare appear to rely on more rudimentary proxies for welfare by purchasing "local" food. Some shoppers at farmers markets and patrons of farm-to-table restaurants are there, in part, because they assume that livestock raised on smaller, local farms is less likely to have spent its life in a crate with very limited access to light and air, and was perhaps butchered more humanely.7 And even consumers who primarily focus on food quality, taste, and environmental impacts-other common reasons for purchasing local foods-likely at least appreciate the added, assumed benefit that the food was more humanely raised. Indeed, this assumption is perhaps correct in most circumstances. A pig or hen raised on a smaller, "sustainable" farm with fewer heads of livestock is less likely to be crammed into a crate or stall with other animals.8 If so, animals benefit when local meat supplants mass-produced meat, regardless of consumers' motivations.

But local food claims appear, unfortunately, to be often unreliable. Food sold at farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants may not be, in fact, local. As explored in prior work, farmers market fraud, although difficult to detect and quantify, appears not uncommon.9 And recent investigations of restaurants, which will be a focus of this Essay, have revealed that supposedly local meat came from the freezer truck of a large foodservice distributor. …

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