Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, said legal activism has become the most effective tool for holding companies accountable for questionable marketing claims. Professor Jacquet, an expert on seafood production, said the labeling rules for, say, farmed salmon are so weak that companies don’t have to disclose whether their fish was wild-caught or farmed with antibiotics in vast, densely packed coastal enclosures. which can have devastating effects on surrounding ecosystems.
“Many of these sustainability claims are dubious and overly exaggerated,” she said. “And since the labeling requirements are so pathetic, there’s really little way for consumers to determine their veracity.”
The deceptive advertising claims against Cargill are typical of many recent cases. In a petition filed with the FTC, six advocacy groups objected to the company’s prominent use of “independent family farmers” to describe the sourcing of the company’s turkey products. The phrase appears on the shrink-wrapped poultry marketed through the Shady Brook Farms and Honest Turkey brands, and cheerful environmental claims are a regular part of the company’s advertising campaigns.
Critics say production practices can be less than idyllic, however. “Far from the rural family farms portrayed by Cargill’s marketing, Cargill’s actual production methods exploit contract farmers and slaughterhouse workers, systematically mistreat animals and cause serious damage to the environment,” the indictment said.
In a statement, Cargill said the allegations were unfounded, noting that the company’s marketing claims are being vetted by the USDA. “Cargill conducts business in a legal, ethical and responsible manner,” it said.
The FTC said it would not comment on pending complaints.
From a regulatory point of view, the meaning of “family farmer” is far from clear. The USDA says the words can describe any farm in which the operator, or their relatives, own at least half of the business — a category that includes more than 97 percent of the country’s farms. But in 2018, the Small Business Administration said the contract farming agreements Cargill and other major poultry companies use should be considered subsidiaries, not independent farming operations, 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 feed they receive from Cargill to the type of equipment they use. they have to buy — requirements that she claimed could saddle farms with crushing debt. Because Cargill and a handful of other companies dominate the turkey market, many contract farmers have few alternatives. “They’re under Cargill’s thumb, and then customers who see the red barn and green grass on the label are misled into thinking they’re supporting family farms,” she said.