Consumer Reports: ‘One Health Certified’ label is meaningless, misleading

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Opinion

By Brian Ronholm and Charlotte Vallaeys 

Upon conducting a review of the “One Health Certified” label for meat and poultry products, Consumer Reports has determined that this label is essentially meaningless and should be ignored by consumers. In addition to being confusing and misleading, the label represents the equivalent of a participation trophy for normal operations.

Labels on food packaging tell a number of stories about a particular product, whether it is identifying particular ingredients, explaining how it was produced, or helping consumers determine whether it is healthy. They also can serve as an important source of information for consumers who have food allergies or want to limit intake of a certain ingredient for health reasons. Unfortunately, some labels have more to do with marketing hype than information consumers can trust when shopping at the grocery store.

In September 2019, Consumer Reports developed a food label ratings system using a methodology based on a review of government regulations, a certifying organizations’ standards and policy manuals, and information from surveys on consumer perceptions of label claims. In addition to determining that the One Health Certified (OHC) label offers no meaningful information, our evaluation of the poultry standards for the label found that it does not require companies to make any significant improvement to their practices.

What is One Health Certified?
According to the One Health Certified web site, OHC is an industry-focused marketing label that producers can use to demonstrate to consumers their commitment to responsible, sustainable, and transparent animal care practices. It is part of a Process Verified Program (PVP) administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) that offers producers a way to market their products. Companies participating in a PVP are required to develop a process and AMS verifies their adherence to this process through audits.

Not to be confused with One Health
The OHC label is attempting to borrow legitimacy from an existing collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach called One Health. Working at the local, regional, national and international levels, the goal of One Health is to achieve optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment.

Among its biggest promoters, One Health is often referred to in spiritual terms and represents a harmonic convergence for food policy because it is viewed as an effective way to fight health issues at the human-animal-environment interface. According to the CDC, agencies use this approach by involving experts in human, animal, environmental health, and other sectors in monitoring and controlling public health threats, and to learn about how diseases spread among people, animals, plants, and the environment. There certainly is some validity to this approach given current events.

With the One Health Certified label, the industry is attempting to link itself to this approach by implying that it is concerned with issues such as antibiotic resistance, food safety, animal welfare and environmental contamination. However, a closer examination of the label’s standards shows there is a distinct difference between the public health goals of One Health and the industry-driven marketing goals of OHC.

Meaningless OHC standards
While companies are audited for compliance with the OHC standards, the standards themselves largely reflect normal industry practices and do not require companies to make any significant improvements to animal welfare, drug use practices, and environmental impact.

  • Animal Welfare. “Responsible Animal Care” is featured prominently at the top of the OHC label in bold letters. However, to meet animal welfare standards for OHC, producers are allowed to use minimal trade association guidelines that essentially represent the norm in poultry production. For chickens, the indoor space requirement is less than one square foot per bird, and there is no requirement for access to the outdoors. There also is no requirement to equip indoor living spaces with features that allow chickens to engage in natural behaviors. Even basic allowances such as controlling indoor ammonia levels produced by animal waste is not required.
  • Antibiotic Use. While the OHC label standards place some restrictions on the use of antibiotics, it allows meat from animals treated with antibiotics to be sold with the label. This removes the implied incentive in the label that producers reduce the use of antibiotics and address root causes in a meaningful One Health way. In addition to medically important uses, the OHC standard allows antibiotics to be administered to prevent disease and expedite the animals’ growth. The OHC standard also does not specifically address the use of other types of growth promotion drugs.
  • Environmental Impact. The environmental section of the OHC label standard requires producers to conduct a life cycle assessment that measures their carbon footprint. However, the standard lacks any requirements to take measures to reduce environmental impacts.
  • Other One Health Concepts. A meaningful One Health label that promotes optimal health for animals, people and the environment likely would address critical issues such as working conditions and labor rights at slaughterhouses. It also would incorporate a fair trade concept that ensures farmers have fair and stable contracts with companies that purchase from them. Unfortunately, these concepts and arrangements run counter to the current vertically integrated system that disadvantages farmers. Thus, there are no references to these issues under the OHC label standards.

Food companies should refrain from affixing the One Health Certified label on their products since it largely reflects current industry practices and is misleading. If consumers encounter this label at the store, they should be aware that it only means that a company used their normal operations to process food-producing animals and decided to reward themselves with a sticker.

About the authors

Brian Ronholm is Director of Food Policy for Consumer Reports, an independent, nonprofit member organization that works with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. He is former deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and prior to that, worked for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

Charlotte Vallaeys is Senior Policy Analyst at Consumer Reports. She leads the organization’s efforts to ensure that food labels are clear, accurate and meaningful as part of their commitment to support a safer, fairer and more sustainable food system. 

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