A new food label will tell you more about the animals you eat

Your head may already be spinning when trying to remember the differences between food labels including “organic,” “fair trade” and “non-genetically modified.”

Here’s one more you may start seeing at your local restaurant. It’s called “Eat REAL,” and it will let you know how animals were treated during food preparation. A nonprofit, the United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC), first started working on the label five years ago and announced earlier this month there are nearly 500 restaurants and foodservice providers who are “REAL” certified in 32 states. Those restaurants include chains such as Bareburger, Fresh & Co. and Sweetgreen, as well as some one-location restaurants. REAL stands for the words “responsible,” “epicurean,” “agricultural” and “leadership.”

The label doesn’t only signify that companies treat animals well. “Eat REAL” is a points-based system, and each restaurant must receive enough points to qualify in several categories, including whether they serve whole grains to customers, whether the seafood they serve is sustainable and whether they serve healthy food in “appropriate” portion sizes.

Plus, to meet the animal welfare requirements, they must promise an entire food animal category, such as pork, or the most-purchased animal product at their restaurant will be approved by animal welfare certification programs recognized by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) by 2021.

They must meet all of these requirements in order to post their “REAL” label at the restaurant and in promotional materials and on their website.

People say they care about animal conditions. Some 77% said they were concerned about the welfare of animals that are raised for human food, according to a survey commissioned by the ASPCA last year. Some 69% said they pay “some or a lot” of attention to food labels that describe how an animal was raised. And a 2014 Consumer Reports survey found that 80% of respondents considered better living conditions for farm animals to be important or very important, which outranked the use of antibiotics and genetically modified organisms in their feed.

Companies must also pay to go through the auditing process required to be certified, as well as some certification fees. (Except in Tennessee, where USHFC has a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health, which covers the fees.) A USHFC spokeswoman said the company tries to keep costs low, and the process typically costs less than $5,000.

At a time when consumers are eating more meals outside their homes, consumers need more transparency, said Lawrence Williams, the CEO of Eat REAL. Indeed, over the past several years, the share of Americans’ budget spent on groceries has dropped, while the share spent on eating out has ticked up. In 2013, millennials spent $2,639 on average eating out, while boomers shelled out $2,386 on average. “This is bringing restaurant dining out of the dark,” said Nancy Roulston, the director of corporate engagement for the ASPCA’s Farm Animal Welfare program.

Some consumers also say they care about health and portion sizes, two other aspects “REAL” includes. Some 44% of consumers say they consider serving sizes on food labels, according to the market-research firm Mintel.

When it comes to packaged food, consumers already have many food labels to keep straight. Labels with sweeping statements like “natural,” have been criticized for not being regulated (or defined) enough. And some products that require extra labeling also cost more. Meat labeled as “humanely-raised,” for example, may cost three times as much as conventionally raised meat.

This sometimes murky world of labeling is one reason Williams wanted to create REAL. “The last thing any of us want to do is further confuse consumers,” he said. “It’s about changing the overall food system and not just one specific characteristic of food.”

Companies appear to be listening. And several companies have made headlines in recent years for providing better treatment for the animals they raise. Perdue, for example, announced in 2016 it was revamping the areas chickens live in, including giving them more exercise equipment and windows. Panera Bread made a similar announcement in 2016, vowing to treat broiler chickens better.

Some critics have also said, though, that terms like “cage free” might not always mean what consumers are imagining. And there are cases when farms and other food producers don’t follow the rules they are supposed to. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has said, for example, that although the USDA requires that “free range” chickens have unlimited access to food and water and the freedom to roam around during their egg-laying cycle, some chickens don’t actually get to roam outdoors when farmers try to use loopholes in the law by making outdoor areas hard for them to access, or when the birds are overfed and unable to walk easily.

Indeed, McDonald’s Corp. MCD, +0.05% and Tyson Foods Inc. TSN, +0.41% cut ties with a Tennessee poultry farm in 2015 that claimed it treated chickens well, but video footage showed the farm killed chickens by stabbing, clubbing and crushing them.

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