A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare
An alert shopper may notice a variety of labels on meat and dairy products making such claims as "grass fed," "cage free," or "natural."
What exactly do these labels mean, especially in terms of animal welfare? Some of the labels represent adherence to actual guidelines, while others don't even relate to the conditions in which the animals lived. So how meaningful are these labels to compassionate consumers and for the animals involved?
Eliminate Confusion About Label Profusion
Following are each of the most common labels, decoded:
"Certified Organic"*: The animals must be allowed outdoor access, with ruminants—cows, sheep, and goats—given access to pasture. (Consumers should be aware that there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing meaningful access to the outdoors.) Animals must be provided with bedding materials. Use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited. These are requirements under the National Organic Program regulations, and compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Currently, there are no federal or state programs to certify aquatic animals, including fish, as organic.
Free-Range Poultry: 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 given. Indeed, the only national guidelines for the term "free range" are basic U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements that poultry raised for meat—but not for eggs—have some access to the outdoors. Producers must submit affidavits to the USDA that support their animal production claims in order to receive approval for this label.
Pasture-Raised and Grass-Fed: The animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in natural behaviors, such as grazing. 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 given. Producers must submit affidavits to the USDA that support their animal production claims in order to receive approval for these labels.
"Certified Humane"*: The animals must be kept in conditions which allow for exercise and freedom of movement. As such, crates, cages, and tethers are prohibited. Outdoor access is not required. Stocking densities are specified to ensure animals are not overcrowded, and animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free, and No Hormones Added: These labels on dairy products mean the cows were not injected 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.
Cage-Free: As birds raised for meat, unlike those raised for eggs, are rarely caged prior to transport, this label on poultry 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 behaviors, including spreading their wings.
Vegetarian-Fed: These animals are 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.
Dolphin-Safe: 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: This claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
Grain-Fed: 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."
"Free-Farmed"*: The animals must be kept in conditions which allow for exercise and freedom of movement. As such, crates, cages, and tethers are not prohibited. Outdoor access is not required. Stocking densities are specified to ensure animals are not overcrowded, and animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Free-Farmed is a program of American Humane.
No label: Most likely, the absence of a label means animals are raised in factory farm conditions that significantly reduce their welfare.
* The claims listed in quotation marks—Certified Organic, Certified Humane, and Free-Farmed—are programs with guidelines or standards, whereas the remaining claims are only labels.