I was at the grocery store in front of a mountain of egg cartons, each trying to grab my attention with a label alleging something about the welfare of the chickens who laid them. I mulled over the options. As a conscientious eater, I wanted to buy the most humane, eco-friendly eggs I could get. But the labels weren’t offering me many clear indications about the origins of the eggs within. What’s the difference between “cage-free,” “free-range,” “free-roaming,” and “farm fresh,” and which is the best?
Labels like “cage-free” and “natural”—which commonly appear on eggs, meat, and dairy—evoke the idea of idyllic farms and well-treated animals, but the real picture inside the feedlot or dairy operation is often much grimmer.
After my grocery store experience, I set out on a fact-finding quest. I discovered that most label claims are not regulated. Cage-free hens could be crammed in a dirty warehouse where high ammonia levels cause burns on their feet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s labeling department requires products labeled “natural” to be minimally processed, so all eggs, no matter how inhumane the life of the hens, can be labeled as such. And all industrially farmed eggs, no matter what kind of label, come from hens who had the tip of their beaks cut off, a painful procedure for the animals as their beaks are loaded with nerves.
But some labels are regulated, and there are ways to make sure that your eggs, meat, and milk were produced with at least some welfare standards:
1. Meet Your Farmer
First, consider getting to know your farmer. Most small farms and ranches give tours, so you can see for yourself what kind of life they are providing the animals. You don’t need expertise to spot inhumane treatment. Renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin says a good test of humaneness is to imagine the reactions of ten people chosen at random to walk through the facility. People in the animal industry can become desensitized to inhumane practices. You may be a better inspector than the “experts.” A properly run cattle-slaughter facility should pass the test, according to Grandin.
Look for things like cleanliness, space allowances, injuries, and sores. Chickens need ground cover to peck at and places to hide when they lay eggs. Pigs need something to dig and root around in. Cows need other cows, grass, and quiet.
2. Look for the Right Kind of Labels: Third-Party Certification.
If you can’t make it out to a farm, third-party certifications are the next best thing. These are programs that certify that their members—farmers and other producers—meet high animal-welfare standards. They’re usually run by animal-welfare experts; they use specific criteria, standards, and scoring systems; and they send auditors to observe the farm’s performance firsthand.
The most stringent third-party certifier is Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). This program certifies only family farms whose animals live outdoors on pasture or range. AWA has stricter standards on space allowances, transportation times, and weaning ages than any other program, according to a report by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC).
Other good labels to look for are Certified Humane, Food Alliance Certified, and the fifth level of Global Animal Partnership.
Certified Humane is a program of HFAC. The founder and executive director began working for farm-animal rights in 1998. Certified Humane is endorsed by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, according to the HFAC website. The treatment of these animals is regulated from birth to slaughter.
“Cages, crates, and tie stalls are among the forbidden practices, and animals must be free to do what comes naturally. For example, chickens are able to flap their wings and dust bathe, and pigs have the space to move around and root,” according to the HFAC website.
Food Alliance Certified has regulations for humane treatment, and it also has standards for safe and fair working conditions, protecting biodiversity and wildlife habitat, and conserving water and soil resources, according to the Food Alliance website.
Global Animal Partnership, (GAP), founded in 2008, is a five-step program. At each level, the requirements become stricter, according to the GAP website.
Other third-party certifications include American Humane Certified and USDA Organic.
According to a report by HFAC, American Humane Certified (AHC) has vague or non-existent requirements for pasture, transportation times, and slaughter. AHC does have clear standards that are similar to other certifications for disbudding (horn prevention on young cows), castration, and beak trimming.
The report by HFAC also shows that USDA Organic has minimal requirements for animal welfare. The standards do not address “handling practices such as electric prod use, management practices such as forced molting and weaning, minimum space allowances, euthanasia, or transport,” according to a report by Farm Sanctuary.
But federally certified organic is still better than no certifications at all. Growth hormones, some of which cause welfare problems, are prohibited. Outdoor access is required for all certified-organic animals, and organic beef cattle must have access to pasture for a minimum of 120 days out of the year, according to the USDA website.
If you don’t see any of these third-party certification labels in your grocery store, ask the retailer to carry them. The more people insist on eating humanely raised animal products, the more change we'll see in our food system.
For more information, see this report comparing third-party certifications done by Humane Farm Animal Care, a report comparing third-party certifications and other industry standards done by Farm Sanctuary, and check out more details on label claims.
Caitlin Battersby wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Caitlin is a former editorial intern at YES!
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