How to Read Meat and Dairy Labels
A brief guide to what labels on meat and dairy products mean for animal welfare
An abundance of labels on meat and dairy products make such claims as "grass fed," "cage free" and "natural." What exactly do these labels mean, especially in terms of animal welfare?
Nearly all animal products in the United States come from factory farms. Some of the claims on product packaging represent better conditions for animals than those suffered by animals raised on factory farms, while others don't relate to the animals' welfare at all. So, how meaningful are these labels?
Here are the most common labels, decoded.
The animals must be allowed outdoor access, with ruminants—cows, sheep and goats—given access to pasture, but the amount, duration and quality of outdoor access is undefined. Animals must be provided with bedding materials. Though the use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited, painful surgical procedures without any pain relief are permitted. These are requirements under the National Organic Program regulations, and compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
Free-Range Chickens and Turkeys
The birds should have outdoor access. However, no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals is defined. Painful surgical procedures without any pain relief are permitted. Producers must submit affidavits to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that support their animal production claims in order to receive approval for this label.
Ruminant animals are fed a diet solely comprised of grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed before they are weaned. These animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as grazing. They must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season (defined as "the time period extending from the average date of the last frost in spring to the average date of the first frost in the fall in the local area of production"). Painful surgical procedures without any pain relief are permitted. Producers must submit affidavits to the USDA that support their animal production claims in order to receive approval for this label.
Global Animal Partnership 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program
Animals are raised according to different levels of welfare standards, from Step 1 to Step 5+. In essence, Step 1 prohibits cages and crates. Step 2 requires environmental enrichment for indoor production systems; Step 3, outdoor access; Step 4, pasture-based production; Step 5, an animal-centered approach with all physical alterations prohibited; and, finally, Step 5+, the entire life of the animal spent on the same integrated farm, with all transport disallowed. Hormone and subtherapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. The 5-Step program is audited and certified by independent third-parties. The 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program is the initiative of Global Animal Partnership.
Animal Welfare Approved
The animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in natural behavior. No cages or crates may be used to confine the animals, and growth hormones and non-therapeutic antibiotics are disallowed. Some surgical mutilations, such as beak-mutilation of egg-laying hens, are prohibited, while others, such as castration without painkiller, are permitted. Compliance is verified through auditing by the labeling program. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.
The animals must be kept in conditions that allow for exercise and freedom of movement. As such, crates, cages and tethers are prohibited. Outdoor access is not required for poultry or pigs, but is required for other species. Stocking densities are specified to prevent the overcrowding of animals. All animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. Pain relief must be used for physical alterations (castration and disbudding) for cattle. For other mammals, anesthesia and analgesia must be used over 7 days of age, but not earlier. Poultry may have parts of their beaks removed without painkiller, though not after 10 days of age. The program also covers slaughter methods. Compliance is verified through auditing by the labeling program. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
No Tail Docking
In the United States, some dairy cows have up to two-thirds of their tails amputated without anesthetic, usually by using tight rubber bands to restrict blood flow until the tail detaches, or is cut off with a sharp instrument. This is painful and renders the cows less able to fend off flies. Some dairy producers label their milk specifically as “no tail docking” to let consumers know their cows have full tails. There may be some verification of this claim, but not necessarily.
Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free and No Hormones Added
These labels on dairy products mean the cows were not dosed with rBGH or rBST, genetically engineered hormones that increase milk production. Hormones are commonly used to speed growth in beef production, and their use by both the beef and dairy industries are associated with animal welfare problems. Chicken and pig producers are not legally allowed to use hormones. These claims do not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions. There may be some verification of this claim, but not necessarily.
Unlike birds raised for eggs, those raised for meat are rarely caged prior to transport for slaughter. As such, this label on poultry meat products has virtually no relevance to animal welfare. However, the label is helpful when found on egg cartons, as most egg-laying hens are kept in severely restrictive cages prohibiting most natural behavior, including spreading their wings.
These animals may be given a more natural feed than that received by most factory-farmed animals, but this claim does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions. As well, some farm animals, such as pigs and chickens, are not natural vegetarians anyway.
In the United States, a Dolphin Safe label on a can of tuna means that no dolphins were intentionally chased, encircled, traumatized, injured or killed in order to catch tuna swimming beneath the dolphins. Due to pressure from other countries, the U.S. government has made multiple attempts to weaken the rules and allow the use of the label even if the tuna were caught by deliberately setting nets on dolphins. The HSUS and others have won a series of lawsuits to maintain the integrity of the label, so a Dolphin Safe label in the United States still means that the tuna were not caught using methods that harm dolphins.
Natural and Naturally Raised
These claims have no relevance to animal welfare.
This claim has little relevance to animal welfare, but feeding ruminants—cows, sheep and goats—high levels of grain can cause liver abscesses and problems with lameness. As such, beef products labeled "grain-fed" most likely come from animals who suffered lower welfare than beef products labeled "grass-fed."