What is humanely raised meat?

If only humanely raised had a clear meaning. Instead, farmers and food companies practice humane animal care in different ways, depending on their knowledge and beliefs about animals. It’s up to us to determine which practices we want to support.

“Wait,” you’re thinking, I just want to go shopping and know what’s humane. Please tell me!”
I could, but that would be my opinion. Try to determine what definition of humanely raised you want to support by clicking the green links below.





What “humanely raised” can mean:

Here are 5 (very simplified) ways of thinking about humane animal care. Which ones feel right to you?

Pasture-raised »

Pasture raised animals (all farm animals can be pasture raised) are allowed to live outdoors for a significant portion of their lives; they get fresh air, space, and sunlight (and therefore tend to get sick less often). By comparison, “free range” animals get to go outside only for short amounts of time, and on some farms the outside area is dirt or concrete, not pasture.

Note!  Some farms feed supplemental grain to their pasture raised animals; if you want grain-free meat, look for “100% grass-fed” instead.

If pasture raised is important to you, here’s more on the pasture raised label and some companies that sell pastured meat.

Grass-fed »

heritage cow2Grass fed animals (only cows, sheep, and goats can be grass fed ) eat grass for all or part of their life. They usually eat this grass on pasture, though sometimes (like in winter) a farmer might house them in barns and feed them hay. My observation is that most grass fed animals are primarily pasture raised.

Grass, by the way, is easier than grain on the tender stomachs of cattle, sheep, and goats. So grass fed animals tend to have fewer digestive problems.

If grass fed is important to you, get the details on what labels to look for and which brands sell grass fed meat. There is a difference between “100% grass-fed” and just plain “grass-fed” so be informed.

Raised indoors with enrichments »

Animals don’t have to be raised outdoors to have a happy life. For indoor animals, enrichments are objects such as perches and nest boxes (for poultry) and hay nests or wallowing pits (for pigs) that allow the animals to engage in natural behaviors. (Think rubber balls and Frisbees for your dog, or string and laser toys for your cat — these are enrichments.)

When animals are allowed to ‘be themselves’ they enjoy better mental and physical health, and thus less suffering (just ask your pet).

“Enrichments” are often referred to on Global Animal Partnership (GAP) labels at Whole Foods and on humane certification labels. Ask farmers about enrichments used on their farms.

Raised without antibiotics »

If farm animals are being fed antibiotics, it’s usually a sign that they’re living in crowded facilities likely to make them sick (antibiotics prevents disease) or they’re eating an unnatural diet meant to fatten them quickly (antibiotics makes animals grow fast).

Antibiotics in meat is more of a human health concern than an animal welfare issue (feeding antibiotics doesn’t harm animals), but can you see that when factory farms ditch the antibiotics, they are forced to raise animals a little more naturally, and therefore a little more humanely?  (Note! They can still crowd animals together inhumanely, without enrichments.)

You might want to buy antibiotic-free meat. If so, look for organic labels or humane certification labels or “raised without antibiotics” on the packaging.

Processed (slaughtered) humanely »

It is indeed possible for animals to be slaughtered in ways that keep pain and stress to a bare minimum. But it’s nearly impossible to determine how farmers and food companies slaughter their animals, because this information is never on meat labels or packaging. (It’s not there because most consumers don’t want to think about it – if they did, things might change.)

If this issue is important to you, ask farmers about their slaughter facility or look for the two humane certification labels that have slaughtering protocols. (Humaneitarian is currently putting together a page about slaughtering.)


But let’s agree…

Even though “humanely raised” can be defined differently, it should never mean that:

  • Animals are raised in cages
  • Animals are raised in tightly crowded barns
  • Animals aren’t allowed to express their natural behaviors
  • Animals are bred in ways that lead to physical deformities
  • Animals are routinely given feed that risks making them sick

Unfortunately, most animals raised for food in America are raised in these ways. Change will only happen as more people (such as yourself) choose alternative products!


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