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. However, 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
Found on beef, lamb, and goat products only.
(Factory farmed animals eat grain for most of their lives -- a food they did not evolve to eat).
Some farms and food companies call their meat grass-fed even if the animals were fed grain during the last few months or weeks of their lives (this is called grain-finishing). If you want 100% grass-fed meat (grass-finishing), look for that 100% number or for the AGA or AWA grass-fed certification label.
How grass-based farming can benefit animals:
- Cows, sheep and goats (ruminants) evolved to eat grass. Grain, unfortunately, creates an acidic environment in ruminants' stomachs, often leading to digestive troubles and the need for antibiotic treatment. (Pigs and poultry cannot be 100% grass-fed because they need some grain in their diet.)
- Grass-fed animals tend to be kept on pasture for the grazing season, allowing them to roam freely and engage in natural behaviors with other members of their species.
- The benefits of grass-fed meat to humans and the environment are numerous.
Found on all types of meat.
That said, farmers might add grain to the diet of pasture-raised animals during the winter, when pastures are covered with snow and animals are brought inside. And pigs and chickens raised on pasture need at least some grain to thrive. So if you want "100% grass-fed meat," look for that label, not the "pasture-raised" one.
How pasture-based farming can benefit animals:
- Animals on pasture are like schoolkids on a playground: they have room to roam, fresh air and sunshine, and the company of other animals.
- Pastured animals are eating what they bodies evolved to eat, lessening the chance of illness.
- If a farmer is managing her grassland well, the chance of parasites and other health problems for animals is reduced.
- Pasturing is experiencing a rennaissance in America and there's lots of info about how it benefits animals.
Found almost exclusively on poultry products.
Free-range poultry are raised in barns and given access to the outdoors. How much time they actually spend out there, and whether the outdoor area is pasture, concrete, or bare ground, varies from farm to farm.
Indoor conditions might also vary. Free-range facilities might be crowded inside, or lack perches or nest boxes. You can't be sure how a farm or company defines "free-range" unless you ask.
How free-range systems can benefit animals:
- Indoor poultry that are let outside now and then have more access to fresh air and roaming space than indoor-only birds.
- If given access to well-managed pasture, free-range poultry can eat the seeds, worms, bugs, and vegetation that they evolved to eat.
Found on all types of meat.
A "humane certifier" is a third-party independent organization that visits farms at least annually to make sure the farmers are following detailed animal care standards. If a farm or company passes the audit, it's officially certified and can use the organization's label on its products.
There are four humane certifiers in the U.S. You can look for their labels when you shop. Just keep in mind that they all have different standards. Also be aware that many small-scale farmers who practice excellent animal welfare choose not to get humane certification (because of the cost, paperwork, or they can't meet one of the standards).
How humane certification can benefit animals:
- Humane certifiers have requirements about how much space an animal gets, how often it should be outdoors, what physical procedures can be done to it, how offspring should be raised, etc.
- Standards are often based on scientific evidence about animal welfare - though as we all know, scientific opinions do differ.
- Humane certifiers make their standards public. By contrast, food companies that say they use "internal audits" to check on their farms tend to keep their standards private.
- Some food certification programs (such as the American Grassfed Association) have animal care clauses in their standards, but animal welfare is not their main focus.
Found on all types of meat.
A farm can choose to be "certified organic," which means it is audited annually and must follow the federal organic standards. Or it can simply call itself "organic" and not undergo an audit -- in which case, you have to trust that the farmer is following organic practices.
What do the federal organic standards require? That animals eat only organic feed -- grains or grasses not grown with GMO seed or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers -- and that they're not given antibitoics or hormones. Whether they eat grass or grain is not specified.
How organic farming systems can benefit animals:
- All certified organic animals must have access to the outdoors, though for how long and how often is not specified. Cows, sheep, and goats must have access to pasture during the grazing season. Pigs and poultry aren't required to have pasture, only access to an outdoor area.
- Certified organic farms must ensure that animals can express natural behaviors, but there is no federal definition of "natural behaviors" and no exact space requirements (more on this here).
- Because certified organic farmers are banned from treating their animals with certain conventional medicines, they must take more care to prevent animal illness and disease before it happens.
- Regulations on the handling, transport and slaughter of certified organic animals have been developed by the National Organic Standards Board.
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 ignore this buzzphrase 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 doesn’t mean anything because in America meat animals aren’t raised in cages.
What about “local” or “locally raised”?
“Local” simply refers to food that is grown or raised within the state or region in which 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 Institute 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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Like politicians and personal ads, some meat labels can't be trusted. The following labels offer no insight into an animal's living conditions:
Natural: This means the meat has no artificial coloring, flavoring, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. Says nothing about the animals.
Naturally-raised: Indicates animals didn't receive antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed containing animal by-products. While such things can be harmful to animals (and people), this label says nothing about animals' living conditions.
No antibiotics added/No added hormones: Industrial farms use antibiotics and hormones to prevent illness and promote rapid animal growth. Unfortunately, there's evidence that this is encouraging the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. But this label says nothing about animals' living conditions.
Farm fresh: By definition, a farm is "a tract of land where plants or animals are raised." But factory farms - where animals never touch land or see the sun - are called "farms," too. Don't be fooled by pretty farm fresh labels!