False-Advertising Law: A Tool for the Farmed Animal Protection Movement

How consumer protection litigation can advance the movement for farmed animals

How can laws designed to protect consumers be used to spare the lives and reduce the suffering of those who are consumed? Well in fact, there are various ways in which consumers’ and farmed animals’ interests actually overlap, particularly when it comes to the way meat, dairy, and egg products are marketed. 

This article provides an overview of how consumer protection legislation—in particular, laws against deceptive advertising and marketing—allow activists to litigate issues of farmed animal treatment in court.

THE CONCEPT OF “HUMANE-WASHING”: Animal and consumer advocates often use the term “humane-washing” to describe the use of words or images that convey a level of animal care and treatment that does not represent reality. Common examples are the use of phrases like “humanely raised” or “commitment to animal welfare,” or the use of imagery depicting animals outdoors in green pastures. Sellers of meat, dairy, and egg products use these misleading marketing tactics because they know consumers are concerned about the way farmed animals are treated.

WHY IT’S A PROBLEM: Why should farmed animals (and those to advocate for them) care whether meat, dairy, and egg products are deceptively marketed to omnivorous consumers? Well for one thing, humane-washing reduces transparency. It hides the truth about factory farming and undermines the work of farmed animal advocates and others who work to educate consumers about the realities of factory farming. Imagery of animals in green pastures reinforces the illusion of the animal agriculture industry as an arcadian endeavor, reflective of “Old MacDonald’s Farm” of childhood yore. If the average consumer believes these representations—and many do—they will likely be less motivated to advocate for change or to reduce animal products in their own diets.

LAWS AGAINST FALSE-ADVERTISING: Across states and nations, laws and regulations exist to protect consumers from false and deceptive marketing practices. All 50 U.S. states have statutes against consumer deception, and, at the federal level, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for enforcing similar national standards. 

Under these laws, a commercial representation is unlawfully deceptive if it is (1) likely to mislead a reasonable consumer and (2) important to that consumer’s decision-making. Humane-washing fits this description: Animal welfare is important to consumers, and phrases like “humanely raised” and bucolic imagery mislead consumers into believing the animals were raised under conditions far better than they actually were. Many state laws use a similar test, meaning humane-washing practices are unlawful at multiple levels of government.

THE REMEDY: In order to comply with consumer protection laws, representations of animal welfare must reflect reality. Therefore, a company engaged in deceptive marketing can come into compliance with the law in one of two ways: It can either improve its animal welfare practices to meet the standard conveyed by its advertising (which is what we as activists would prefer), or it can remove the words and images causing the deception. Animal Equality is working diligently to remove humane-washing from the marketplace using various legal avenues. By advancing the dual missions of consumer- and animal-protection groups, we can smooth the way for activists engaged in corporate outreach, legislative affairs, and farmed animal advocacy.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Humane-washing is everywhere: online, in the grocery aisle, on social media, in billboards and bus ads, and even on TV. Keep an eye out for examples of humane-washing as you go about your day, and point it out to friends and family when you see it. By drawing attention to the misleading nature of these advertisements and product labels, we can shatter the myth.

In addition, the best possible way we can help animals is simply by refusing to eat them! Check out Love Veg for tips to get started!