What is humanely raised meat?
If only “humanely raised” had a single meaning. Instead, people define it differently, based on their knowledge and intuition about animals. Farmers and food companies define it differently, too. So each of us has to determine what it means to us before we can eat what is right.
“Wait,” you’re thinking, “I just want to go shopping and know what’s humane. Please tell me!” But that would be my definition. Instead, consider the approaches below by opening the green links.
Humanely raised meat can be…
Factory farms (a.k.a industrial farms) raise animals in tight confinement, without much mental or physical stimulation, and feed them grain that fattens them unnaturally quickly so that companies can raise as many animals as possible, as fast as possible. There’s lots of information out there about factory farms, so it’s not a focus of this website.
But how do you know if meat came from a factory farm? Humaneitarian proposes this simple guideline: factory farmed meat is anonymous. Nothing is said on the packaging about how or where the animal was raised; it’s the ultimate “mystery meat.” These products don’t feature any of the labels that reveal something about animal welfare.
Some companies that operate standard factory farms may claim their meat is “humanely raised” — but always be suspicious of that! The phrase is not regulated; any farm or food company can use it. Instead, buy from producers who share details about their animal husbandry practices. Usually they do this by putting helpful labels on their packaging, such as grass-fed, free-range, pasture-raised, organic, etc.
For a number of people, “humanely raised” means pasture-raised or grass-fed. They believe that animals can better express their natural behaviors on pasture, and they know that animals are less likely to develop health problems on pasture because they’re eating the food they evolved to eat, in environments that are less likely to expose them to disease.
For eons, all farm animals were raised this way. They grazed in fields or were given hay in outdoor pens; farmers brought them indoors only in bad weather. Today, most farm animals are raised in lightless, landless buildings. Food writer Michael Pollan calls this “the urbanization of the world’s livestock.”
If your definition of humane includes “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed,” be aware that the two terms can mean slightly different things, depending on the farm or food company that’s doing the raising. Here’s a list of major food companies that raise animals on pasture or outdoors. If you buy meat at your local farmers’ market, the farmers are very likely to have raised their animals on pasture.
“Natural behaviors” are actions that animals will engage in if they’re not severely confined and are left to their own devices. Chickens, for example, like to peck and scratch at the ground. Pigs, ever curious, love to root around. If an animal is tightly confined or is left without objects to engage with, it tends to get bored or frustrated and starts to engage in abnormal behaviors.
Farms that allow animals to act naturally can be indoor operations or pasture-based farms, large farms or small farms. So if you want to buy meat from animals that were allowed to be themselves, you might purchase meat raised in many different ways. The common thread is that the animals were given adequate space and ways to engage their minds and bodies. Perhaps they were also given the kind of food that they evolved to eat, which is better for their digestive systems and overall health.
If you’d like to know what farm animals do naturally, visit these pages — beef, chicken & turkey, pork, lamb & goat – for a brief introduction to the natural behaviors of farm animals and the various farming systems that encourage these behaviors.
On farms, animals are subject to a number of practices for the sake of their individual health or the health of the group. Some of these might cause animals long-term suffering, while others only cause temporary pain. Perhaps you’ve heard of tail docking or de-beaking, or the use of gestation crates or veal crates. These are widespread tools/practices used on industrial farms, and you may disapprove of them. On the other hand, small pasture-based farms might castrate their pigs or clip the wings of their poultry.
If you don’t want animals to be subject to a specific practice, ask a farmer or food company whether they engage in that practice. Farmers who operate outside the industrial model often try to minimize pain to their animals in daily life and while doing certain procedures for the sake of the animal’s health. The four humane certification organizations in the U.S. may ban or encourage certain practices.
Although a procedure done to an animal might cause pain, keep in mind that the pain might subside quickly, and the animal may recover relatively soon. In other words, don’t necessarily judge a farming practice by how it looks or sounds. The conditions an animal is kept in from day-to-day might be of more concern to you. On these pages — beef, chicken & turkey, pork, lamb & goat – get introduced to how animals are raised in various farming systems.
Some people want reassurance that the meat they buy has been raised humanely. But they’re not content with taking a company’s or a farmer’s word for it. These folks look for products that feature a humane certification label or the certified organic label. Such labels demonstrate that an independent organization visited the farm or food company and made sure it was raising animals according to the organization’s detailed standards.
There are four independent organizations in the U.S. that certify meat for humane treatment: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), and American Humane Certified. Each organization has different standards; learn about them here. The “certified organic” label, overseen by the federal government, also has its own standards.
Some third-party certification organizations with recognizable labels (such as Food Alliance and the American Grassfed Association) include humane treatment in their certification requirements, but it’s not their main focus.
It’s not easy to determine how an animal was slaughtered. Farmers and food companies don’t put this kind of information on their packaging because they sense that consumers don’t want to hear about it. But some people believe that meat cannot be “humanely raised” unless the slaughtering took place in the quickest and least painful way for the animal.
Due to time constraints, and because slaughtering is such a complex topic, I haven’t been able to research various slaughter methods (yet). For now, keep in mind the following points if your definition of “humanely raised” includes humane slaughtering:
1. Two of the four humane certifiers in the U.S. have protocols for slaughtering (Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved). You can buy meat with one of their labels if you approve of their slaughtering standards.
2. The animal behavioral scientist Temple Grandin is America’s leading expert on humane slaughtering methods. Her website has lots of technical info on the topic, though it may not help you find humanely slaughtered products. (For that, see next point.)
3. A farmer or food company should be willing to tell you how and where their animals are slaughtered. If not, what are they trying to hide? Always ask for transparency. Talk with farmers at your local farmers’ market. Call or e-mail food companies.
As you decide what “humane” means to you, rely on your own personal values, knowledge, and intuition. Choose one or more of the approaches above, or put together a combination of what’s important to you. If you have a definition of “humanely raised meat” that’s not listed here, write in and I’ll post it on the blog.
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