Wherever you shop, you have to rely on meat labels if you want to eat humanely. Here are 5 commonly-found meat labels that say something about how the animals were raised.
Keep in mind that the first 3 labels can vary in their meaning — you’ll need a bit more information. But these labels are a good starting point for learning more about a farm or food company, because they indicate that an alternative to standard factory farming was used.
A Humane Guide to Meat Labels
What about “humanely raised”?
Farmers and food companies might use the term “humanely raised” to make their products sound appealing, but as noted elsewhere on this site, there is no generally accepted definition of “humanely raised,” nor is there any governmental regulation of that term. Even a standard factory farm could use “humanely raised” on their products. Try to look beyond this buzzword and seek out products with one of the 5 labels above.
What about “cage-free”?
The cage-free label is only used on eggs. When you see this phrase on a meat product, it really doesn’t mean anything.
What about “local” or “locally raised”?
“Local” simply refers to food that is grown or raised within the state or region where it’s being sold (or within a 100-mile or 250-mile radius). “Local” offers no information about how the animals were raised.
If you want to know more…
See Behind the labels to learn about label enforcement and accountability. Also, the Animal Welfare Approved program has a guide to meat labels (.pdf) that is quite comprehensive and discusses more obscure labels, such as heritage breed and biodynamic.
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[Sources for this page: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service, Consumer Reports, Sustainable Table, Food Alliance, Humane Society of the United States, Animal Welfare Approved, American Grassfed Association, Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont]
Like politicians and personal ads, some meat labels can't be trusted. These labels offer no insight into an animal's living conditions:
Natural: This means the meat has no artificial coloring, flavoring, chemical preservatives, or artifical or synthetic ingredients. Nothing to say about how the animal was raised.
Naturally-raised: These animals didn't receive antibiotics, growth hormones or feed containing animal by-products. Those things can be harmful to animals (and people), but this label doesn't offer insight into animals' living conditions.
Antibiotic-free/No added hormones: Industrial farms use antibiotics and hormones to promote rapid animal growth. There's evidence that this is encouraging the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But this label says nothing about an animal's living conditions or its feed.
Farm fresh: By definition, a farm is "a tract of land where produce or animals are raised." But factory farms - where animals never touch land - are unfortunately called "farms," too. Don't be fooled by the farm fresh label!