Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, said legal activism has become the most powerful tool for holding companies accountable for questionable marketing claims. Professor Jacquet, an expert in seafood production, said that labeling regulations for farmed salmon, for example, are so weak that companies don’t have to disclose whether their fish are caught wild or farmed with antibiotics in huge, densely packed coastal enclosures, which has a devastating impact the surrounding ecosystems.
“Many of these sustainability claims are dubious and completely exaggerated,” she said. “And since the labeling regulations are so pathetic, consumers have really little opportunity to determine their veracity.”
The misleading advertising claims against Cargill are typical of many current cases. In a petition filed with the FTC, six stakeholders objected to the company’s prominent use of “independent family farmers” to describe the company’s sourcing of its turkey products. The phrase appears on the shrink-wrapped poultry marketed through the Shady Brook Farms and Honest Turkey brands, and happy claims about the environment are a regular part of the company’s promotional campaigns.
Critics say manufacturing practices can be less than idyllic, however. “In contrast to the idyllic family businesses that are represented by Cargill’s marketing, Cargills’ actual production methods exploit contract farmers and slaughterhouse workers, animals are systematically abused and serious environmental damage is caused,” said the complaint.
In a statement, Cargill said the allegations were baseless and noted that the company’s marketing claims were being reviewed by the USDA.
The FTC said it did not comment on any pending complaints.
From a regulatory point of view, the meaning of “family farmer” is anything but clear. According to the USDA, the words can describe any farm where the operator or his relatives own at least half of the business – a category that encompasses more than 97 percent of the country’s farms. But in 2018, the Small Business Administration said the contract farming arrangements that Cargill and other large poultry companies employ should be viewed as subsidiaries rather than independent farms when it comes to federal lending decisions.
Angela Huffman, co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance, one of the complainants against Cargill, said contract farmers are often bound by mandates that dictate every step of production, from the breed of birds and the forage they receive from Cargill to the type of equipment, that they have to buy – requirements they believe could place a crushing debt on farm owners. With Cargill and a handful of other companies dominating the turkey market, many contract farmers have few alternatives. “They are under Cargill’s control and then customers who see the red barn and green grass on the label are fooled into thinking they support family businesses,” she said.