Three eggs in a carton with sad faces drawn on.

Can Ethical Labelling Make Food Systems Healthy, Sustainable, and Just?

By Christine Parker

Consumers are often encouraged to “vote with their fork” and “say no” to unhealthy, unsustainable and unfair food. Food packaging is typically littered with claims about the nutrition, ethics and social goods associated with the product inside. Claims like “organic”, “GMO free”, “fair trade”, and “anti-biotic free” are common. But can consumer preference base labelling make a difference to the health, sustainability and ethics challenges facing the food system?

Governments, civil society groups and industry all act as if label claims make a big impact on consumers and food businesses. Governments mandate that certain safety and nutritional information should be displayed on food labels. Public health advocates campaign for mandatory disclosure of more information (like added sugars) hoping  it will nudge both consumers and businesses towards healthier options. Businesses use label claims to promote themselves as ethical and environmentally responsible. A plethora of other groups have put forward their own independent certifications and trademarks from dolphin friendly tuna to sustainably farmed coffee.

My colleagues at the University of Melbourne and I conducted a three year research project evaluating ethical food labelling, using animal welfare and “superfood” label claims as case studies. In Australia, like the US, animal welfare labelling is now pervasive on the supermarket shelf. About half the eggs sold in Australian supermarkets are now labelled “free range”. Most chicken meat carries an “RSPCA Approved” or “free range” label certification. And most ham, bacon and pork products are labelled and certified “sow stall (or gestation crate) free.” Major supermarkets heavily market their animal welfare endeavors and consumers clearly want to buy higher animal welfare products. But consumer and animal advocate groups have criticized these labels as misleading. The Australian consumer protection regulators has even taken a number of successful enforcement actions against misleading advertising of animal welfare credentials.

Our research asked two questions. First, has the rise in animal welfare labelling given citizens more say over animal welfare in farm animal production? Activists often argue that food labelling will make food businesses more transparent and accountable to individual citizens, and thus allow citizens to make better choices to improve the whole food system. The research found that as animal welfare labelling increased in Australia, this also led to increased public discussion and more in depth understanding of animal welfare issues reflected in news media, public policy processes and consumer campaigns. Perhaps more significantly, the research also found that the influence of consumers on animal welfare practices was largely mediated and controlled by Australia’s two major supermarkets and other food retailers.

The second question was whether labelling changed production practices to improve animals’ lives? The research found that the widespread adoption of higher animal welfare labels by supermarkets led to a very small improvement in the conditions for pigs, layer hens and meat chickens. However it did not and cannot create the holistic and systemic changes necessary address welfare and public health concerns with large scale intensive confined animal agriculture. This is because supermarkets require very large scale supply and very low prices. Labelling aimed at consumer preferences can therefore only tweak the mainstream system.

Labels often focus on improving only a single dimension of animal farming without changing the overall system. The researchers found that “housing reductionism” is particularly common on animal welfare labels. Industry improves one aspect of animal confinement, for example getting rid of gestation crates for pigs or cages for hens. But they do not address other aspects of confinement such as farrowing crates (for birthing and weaning piglets) and mating stalls for sows or very crowded barns for hens. Nor do they address other aspects of intense animal production that cause welfare and public health concerns, such as lack of space and enrichment for animals in and out of barns to engage in healthy natural behaviors. Nor do they address conditions that give rise to the overuse of antibiotics and the creation of superbugs, unsafe working conditions during slaughter and processing of animals, and pollution and emissions from factory farms.

It is great for consumers to think ethically about what we buy and eat. But it is unfair and unrealistic to expect consumer preferences to adequately protect animals and environmental sustainability. The label claims on animal products are created by retailers and producers whose business it to sell more of their products. While many in business may genuinely want to do the right thing, they also have a conflict of interest. They want consumers and activists to believe that we can contribute to a kinder gentler world by consuming their ethically labelled products. This is not enough. It is also important for democratic government agencies to actively regulate and enforce what is disclosed on labels and what different terms mean.

Researchers and food system advocates can assist by identifying and calling out misleading labels to help hold researchers accountable. As citizens and activists we also need government to set baseline standards for business practice that enable good animal welfare, environmental sustainability and public health to ensure a good food system for everyone.


RSVP for “Can Ethical Labeling Make Food Systems Healthy, Sustainable, and Just? Lessons from a Critical Evaluation of the Democratic Governance Capacity of Animal Welfare Labeling” on April 23 at noon at Harvard Law School. 


Professor Christine Parker is Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia and a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Program.


The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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