The vast majority of meat, eggs and dairy sold in the United States comes from factory farms in which animal cruelty is rampant. Packaging for animal products frequently contains phrases or images meant to signify higher animal welfare standards, but many of those claims are misleading. Be a savvy shopper by learning the hidden meanings behind these common labels.

"USDA Organic"

This seal certifies that animals must be provided with outdoor access, so they are raised in slightly more space than typical factory farms, are provided organic feed and are not administered hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. However, the organic standards still do not address many of the most prominent welfare issues. For example, animals raised in organic production may still be subjected to routine mutilations such as dehorning or castration without pain relief. The organic label also offers no additional protections for animals during transport and slaughter. 

"Free-range"

This label indicates that birds are given access to the outdoors, but there is no legal requirement that this will be a green pasture. The term does not define any standards on stocking density, frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals.

"Certified Humane" 

The “Certified Humane” label provides meaningful requirements for stocking densities, bedding materials, slaughter methods and pain relief. Hormone and antibiotic use is prohibited. Compliance is verified through auditing by the labeling program. (This label should not be confused with “American Humane Certified,” which is considerably weaker.)  

"The Global Animal Partnership-approved"

A multi-tier animal welfare program where standards get stricter as the level gets higher on a one-to-five scale. All levels prohibit the caging of animals and intensive confinement. The higher levels allow the animals more room, better living conditions and outdoor access.

"Natural" or "Naturally-raised"

These claims have no relevance to animal welfare.

"Hormone-free," "rBGH-free," "rBST-free" or "No Hormones Added"

These labels on dairy products mean the cows were not dosed with artificial hormones that increase milk production. These claims do not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions. The term is not relevant for chicken, eggs or pork, as producers are not legally allowed to use hormones. 

"Cage-free"

Most egg-laying hens are kept in cruel, tiny cages prohibiting nearly all of their natural behaviors. Cage-free farms aren’t cruelty-free, but do allow birds more space along with perches for roosting at night, nest boxes and often loose litter for dustbathing and scratching. (Learn more about this issue in our egg carton label guide.) “Cage-free” is meaningless for chicken meat. Chickens raised for meat are still treated terribly, but aren’t caged prior to transport to the slaughterhouse.