Shake Shack challenged over hormone-free chicken claims

Don’t mislead consumers with claims-based marketing; educate them.

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Shake Shack
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An activist group called Shake Shack’s hormone-free chicken labeling ‘misleading.’ And they’re right.

As a rule, I don’t agree with activist groups, but stick with me and I’ll explain.

Shake Shack’s marketing claims

Shake Shack has been marketing its chicken as hormone-free for years.

According to the company’s 2023 Stand for Something Good Report,  “Our culinary team continued to improve our menu, focusing on hormone- and antibiotic-free proteins.”

But, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that all poultry raised for food be hormone-free.

This fact is noted later in the Shake Shack report with an asterisk and in tiny font. Honestly, it’s not something most consumers would notice. In fact, I had to search hard to find it.

Activist challenge

Now, shareholder activist group The Accountability Board is asking Shake Shack to reveal how exactly its chicken is hormone-free, calling the claims “difficult to understand” and “misleading.”

“Unless the company’s achieved the unlikely scientific advancement of eliminating naturally occurring hormones from chicken, any touting of ‘hormone-free’ chicken simply doesn’t make sense,” the Accountability Board said in a letter to fellow shareholders. “Yet company executives and Board members have repeatedly—and for years—signed off on these claims.”

Shake Shack says there were already plans in place to change the wording to “no added hormones.” The fast casual also asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to change the wording on its 2024 proxy statement.

“We are also not making any changes to our chicken suppliers or any of our supply chain and food policies — it is simply a language change,” a company spokesperson added.

Why it matters

Today’s chicken consumer values transparency above all else. They want to know how their chicken is being fed, raised and processed.

However, if we’re being honest, very few of them probably know that hormone use is prohibited in poultry.

According to a 2020 working paper published by Jason L. Lusk, then a Distinguished Professor and Head in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University and now the VP and dean of the division of agriculture and natural resources at Oklahoma State University, consumers are willing to pay a premium for chicken that is labeled hormone-free, even if they know the food label is superfluous.

In a move that seems counter-intuitive, 30% of respondents increased the amount they were willing to pay for these products once they were presented with information about the redundancy of these claims.

Chicken marketers, we’re better than that. Can we please focus on educating consumers, rather than misleading them?

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