The overwhelming majority of meat, eggs and dairy sold in the United States come from industrial factory farms where animals are housed in ruthlessly small spaces and subjected to other cruel treatment.
Packaging for animal products frequently contains phrases or images meant to signify higher animal welfare standards, but many of those claims are misleading. Here’s what cage-free, free-range, certified organic, certified humane and other common labels really mean.
What do animal welfare labels on meat, dairy and eggs actually mean?
Animal product labels may convey information about antibiotics, hormone usage, housing (e.g., cage free, pasture raised) and diet. Not all labels are regulated, and some labels leave room for interpretation by the producer (e.g., some labels might convey that the animals have outdoor access but do not define how much or how often).
Labels that convey information about animal welfare standards
Certified Humane* The Certified Humane standards include minimum space allowances, bedding material and environmental enrichment (e.g., hay bales, pecking blocks and perches for chickens) among dozens of other basic requirements for animal health and nutrition. Animals are never confined in cages or crates and are free to display natural behavior. Farms are inspected by trained auditors.
Global Animal Partnership* This multiple-tier animal welfare program reflects stricter standards as the level rises from 1 to 5. The baseline (level 1) prohibits cages, crates and crowding while levels 2-5 require further welfare improvements. To reach level 2, farms must provide environmental enrichment and at level 3, they must provide seasonal outdoor access. Level 4 requires production systems to be pasture-based, and levels 5 and 5+ have additional requirements such as the elimination or reduction of painful procedures including castration. All levels have requirements around basic care and nutrition, and farms are inspected by third-party auditors in every season of the year.
USDA Organic* Animals are provided with some outdoor access, eat organic feed and are not given hormones or routine antibiotics. (If treated with antibiotics, they must be removed from the program.) This seal does not explicitly include animal welfare requirements and thus permits routine mutilations (such as tail docking of piglets) without pain relief, for example.
USDA Certified Grass Fed* Animals have continuous outdoor access during the growing season and can only be fed grass and forage, with the exception of milk before weaning. This term does not provide guidelines for other aspects of animal welfare, such as confinement outside of the growing season.
Pasture-raised Animals have continuous free access to the outdoors throughout their usual “grow-out period.” The term does not define any standards for how much space each animal should be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals. Although pasture-raised animals are not kept in cages or crates, this term does not provide guidelines for other aspects of animal welfare.
Free-range Animals are given access to the outdoors for at least 51% of the animals’ lives. The term does not define any standards for how much space per animal or frequency of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals. Although free-range animals are not kept in cages or crates, this term does not provide guidelines for other aspects of animal welfare.
Cage-Free Hens can move freely indoors and usually have access to perches, nest boxes and loose litter during their production cycle. It does not define how much space each bird is provided unless accompanied by a third-party seal such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership or United Egg Producers.
Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free and No Hormones Added These labels on dairy products mean the cows were not given artificial hormones to increase milk production. These practices are not relevant for chicken, turkey or eggs as producers are not legally allowed to use hormones.
Labels that do not convey information about animal welfare standards
Humanely raised The USDA does not define this term (though it accepts USDA Organic certification as verification), so it has little relevance unless accompanied by a seal from a trusted third-party program.
Natural and naturally raised This label claim is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as products containing no artificial ingredients or added colors. It does not convey information about animal welfare.
Vegetarian-fed This term means that the animals’ feed is free from animal products. (Slaughterhouse leftovers are often fed to other factory farmed animals.)
*Verified by independent auditors
Industry standards are often the worst confinement facilities compared with more humane housing found on farms with higher animal welfare standards.
Cages house five to 10 birds each, confining hens so tightly that they can’t turn around or spread their wings. Hens live their entire lives on barren wire.
Although crowded and entirely indoors, hens can spread their wings, take “dust baths” on the floor, lay their eggs in nests and fly up to roost off the ground at night.
Each hen has at least 108 square feet of outdoor space with a substantial cover of living vegetation.
Mother pigs are unable to socialize or even turn around. They’re so tightly confined that when they lie down to sleep, their udders or legs often protrude into neighboring crates.
Pigs have room to walk around in common areas and are free to socialize and display natural behaviors.
Pigs have unconfined access to outdoor pasture and living vegetation throughout their life. Be warned: Currently, the USDA requires documentation of, but does not verify, this claim.
Veal crates are barely larger than the calves’ bodies. Calves are often chained by the neck and can’t turn around, walk, play together, lie down comfortably or breathe fresh air for their entire lives.
Group pens allow calves to stretch, lie down, groom themselves and socialize with other calves. These barns often receive natural sunlight and have year-round ventilation.
A very small number of farms claim that calves have access to outdoor pasture throughout their short lives, but no official standard currently exists.
What can I do to help farm animals?
The way animals are raised and kept on farms has implications for people, animals and the environment. You can make more humane choices every time you sit down to eat by incorporating more plant-based foods into your meals. Millions of people are following the Meatless Monday program, eating vegan before 6 p.m. or have eliminated animal products entirely. If you do eat animal products, choose only those that come from higher welfare producers. And be sure you’re receiving action alerts from us—we’ll let you know about more opportunities to help farm animals!