How to Decode Humane Food Labels at the Supermarket
With a food industry flooded with “humanewashing,” it can be difficult to separate truth from fiction. This guide will help you make more informed food purchases.
We encounter so many different food labels when we’re shopping at the supermarket that they can be confusing, even overwhelming. Worse, not all labels are truthful. As consumer awareness and conscientious consumption grows, we increasingly want to know whether the food we eat and the packaging it comes in is organic, locally sourced, environmentally sustainable, produced through fair and equitable labor standards, obtained via fair trade, and—crucially for those consumers who care about the lives of animals raised for food—whether food producers have taken material steps to address animal cruelty and produce more humane—or even purely plant-based—products.
While plant-based eating is admirable, and it’s best for animal welfare to eat as few animals as possible (ideally none), many of us will continue to eat meat and other animal products for the foreseeable future. The animals who are raised for food deserve to thrive in high welfare conditions. Each one of us is a farmer “by proxy,” helping to shape the lives of those animals through our everyday food choices.
And we’re not just shaping animal lives, we’re shaping the planet. Serving billions of humans animal-heavy diets using fossil fuels and destroying animal habitats is unambiguously the most significant contributor to human-caused environmental destruction. More than 99 percent of animals raised and killed for food come from unsustainable and cruel factory farms or, in the case of sea animals, other industrial operations.
At present, the non-factory meat supply is limited not by consumer demand but by the number of farmers with the means and the know-how to raise and slaughter animals using higher welfare, more ethical, and more sustainable methods. More sustainable operations with strong animal welfare practices are growing rapidly (especially higher welfare brands that are now owned by big meat companies), but their products can be hard to pick out. The rise of plant-based diets and the emerging science behind growing meat in laboratories using cultured animal cells reveal that our diets may eventually change to a point at which animal husbandry for meat, milk, and eggs, may one day be a thing of the past.
In the meantime, it is essential that food labels are factually correct, to help us as consumers to make educated, informed dietary choices for ourselves and our families. There’s no question that American consumers are making food choices with increasing concern for ethical and social issues; we are demanding locally sourced, higher welfare, more ethically and sustainably produced animal products. But it can be difficult to know what various food labels and certifications truly mean, especially because some are inaccurate, misleading, or meaningless.
Conscientious consumers increasingly look for certain aspects of humane treatment of the animals raised and slaughtered in the food system, including that the animals:
Be bred with healthy genetics so all animals can engage in a full range of natural behaviors
Be given enough space indoors so they can express natural behaviors
Be provided enrichments to encourage natural behaviors
Be raised on pasture
Be raised without routinely being given antibiotics
Have access to the outdoors
Not be physically modified (debeaked, dehorned, etc.)
Not be raised in intensive confinement
When young, be allowed to wean naturally
Each of the labels in this guide addresses one or more of these areas of humane treatment of nonhuman animals, with varying degrees of success and truthfulness. Read on and arm yourself with the knowledge of how the animals that have been farmed for their meat and eggs and milk for our food systems were treated.
Here’s a review, including the verdicts, of the most common animal-based food labels you will likely encounter in your local supermarket.
Label: American Humane Certified (AHC)
Despite the name, virtually all AHC-labeled products come from factory farms where animals are raised in confinement. AHC allows the use of caged confinement, painful body modifications, and subtherapeutic antibiotics—all practices widely considered inhumane or dangerous for public health. Though AHC may provide slightly more space and enrichments compared to standard industry practice, this label does not meet a baseline of farmed animal welfare.
Label: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA)
This is one of the best welfare labels available in the United States today.
Products with AWA labels likely come from animals who were raised on pasture or with outdoor access and given enrichments. AWA requires that animals diagnosed with illness requiring antibiotics be treated, but doesn’t allow drugs to be used to compensate for unhealthy conditions. While AWA’s label may offer some of the highest welfare conditions, these products are not widely available for most consumers.
Label: USDA Certified Organic
Sadly, USDA organic standards do not necessarily correlate with meaningfully better animal welfare and often indicate that products come from animals raised in low welfare conditions on factory farms.
Though the use of added hormones and antibiotics is prohibited, farms are allowed to raise breeds that have been selected to grow unnaturally quickly or produce excessive amounts of eggs or milk, characteristics that have a negative impact on the animals’ welfare.
Poultry raised for meat must be allowed “outdoor access,” but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined, leaving ambiguous whether, for example, small screened-in porches with a roof are classified as “outdoor access.”
Caging egg-laying hens is prohibited, but the USDA does not require that hens be given enrichments (like perches) necessary to achieve improved welfare in cageless systems.
Pig producers may confine mother pigs in abysmal gestation crates.
Label: United Egg Producers (UEP)
This label should be thought of as a confirmation of standard—cruel and non-sustainable factory farming practices. United Egg Producers Certified is a program of the UEP, the largest trade association for egg producers in the United States.
The UEP Certified program relies on a set of published standards, and farms are audited by either the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service or a third party. Without additional worthwhile welfare certifications or regulated claims, products that carry the “UEP” claim do not establish meaningful animal welfare standards.
Verdict: Accurate, but only partially important
Heritage-certified poultry are capable of enjoying the highest levels of welfare. Heritage breeds had their particular traits defined before the mid-twentieth century. The American Poultry Association recognizes heritage lines as “standard-bred,” as opposed to the hybrid genetic lines that dominate the modern poultry industry. As defined by the American Poultry Association, standard breeds are produced by mating two birds of the same breed while preserving essential traits (such as shape, size, and behaviors).
As defined by the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit working to “protect America’s endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction,” heritage poultry must come from standard-bred parent and grandparent birds, mate naturally, have a healthy growth rate, and be genetically capable of living long, productive lives outdoors.
Although heritage birds have high welfare genetics, that does not mean that heritage birds were necessarily raised in high welfare conditions. For more meaningful animal welfare claims, look for heritage bird certifications with other worthwhile welfare certifications or regulated claims.
Label: Standard Bred
Verdict: Accurate, but only partially important
Look for this claim for poultry only when combined with a meaningful animal welfare certification. Standard breeds or standard-bred birds typically have important welfare advantages over the hybrid genetic lines that dominate the modern poultry industry.
For example, these birds can thrive on pasture, mate naturally, and can live long lives without becoming obese or developing other health problems, due to their high welfare genetics. Standard breeds that had their particular traits defined before the mid-20th century are known as heritage.
Label: No Added Hormones
Verdict: Meaningless for animal welfare
These claims are potentially misleading because federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in pig and poultry production: it’s a matter of federal law, not conscience. The label doesn’t address pig and poultry production, which typically includes the extensive use of pharmaceuticals administered to animals daily in their feed.
Cattle bred for their meat are often treated with hormones to cause the animals to gain weight more quickly, so “no added hormones” for beef products mean that only naturally occurring hormones should be present in the meat.
Without additional welfare certifications or regulated claims, products that carry the “No Added Hormones” claim are meaningless for animal welfare.
Label: Global Animal Partnership Step 1
The Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Animal Welfare Rating Program is a tiered animal welfare certification, with different “Steps” ranging from 1 to 5+. The GAP Step 1 label is the most widely available. For chickens raised for meat, no higher welfare genetics, outdoor access, or natural light is required. Laying hens are subject to beak trimming at the hatchery, and are provided no enrichments and only 1.5 square feet per hen.
Pigs can be raised permanently indoors, and piglets are forcibly weaned before they would naturally.
Beef cattle can be castrated without anesthetic, calves can be weaned months earlier than they would be naturally, and cattle can be “finished” on feedlots with no shade. Dairy cattle can be “disbudded” and managed in an indoor system, antibiotics can be continuously administered to calves (and heifers in their last trimester), and calves can be forcibly removed from their mothers just six hours after birth (in contrast to their natural weaning period of about eight months) and castrated without a sedative.
Animals certified GAP Step 1 (or with the generic GAP label) may be raised in conditions minimally better than standard industry practice, but this certification does not come close to meeting consumer expectations for animal welfare.
Label: Global Animal Partnership Step 2
The GAP Step 2 label is also very flawed. Animals certified GAP Step 2 may be raised in conditions minimally better than standard industry practice, but this certification does not come close to meeting consumer expectations for animal welfare. For chickens raised for meat, no higher welfare genetics or outdoor access is required. Laying hens are subject to beak trimming at the hatchery, but must be provided at least one enrichment (such as a bale of hay) per 1,000 hens.
Pigs can be raised permanently indoors, and piglets are forcibly weaned earlier than allowed in higher GAP Steps.
Beef cattle calves can be weaned months earlier than they would be naturally and can be “finished” on feedlots, but must be provided shade. Dairy cattle can be “disbudded” and managed in an indoor system, calves can be forcibly removed from their mothers just 12 hours after birth (in contrast to their natural weaning period of about eight months) and castrated without a sedative, but dairy cattle must be provided two types of environmental enrichments.
Label: Global Animal Partnership Step 3
Verdict: Flawed but better than standard industry practice.
Animals certified GAP Step 3 should be raised in conditions better than standard industry practice, but this certification does not meet consumer expectations for animal welfare.
The GAP Step 3 label is better than standard industry practices. For chickens raised for meat, no higher welfare genetics are required, but birds are provided at least two types of enrichment (such as one bale of hay per 1,000 chickens). Seasonal outdoor access is required, but birds can be kept confined until four weeks of age, meaning that in practice birds raised for meat may never go outdoors.
Laying hens are subject to beak trimming at the hatchery and are not necessarily raised on pasture, but must have seasonal access to pasture and at least two types of enrichment. There is no Step 3 standard for beef cattle. Dairy cattle can be “disbudded” and administered subtherapeutic antibiotics, calves can be forcibly removed from their mothers just 12 hours after birth (as opposed to their natural weaning period of about eight months), and can be castrated, but only with the use of a sedative and local anesthetic. Animals certified GAP Step 3 were likely raised in conditions better than standard industry practice, but this certification does not meet consumer expectations for animal welfare.
Label: Global Animal Partnership Step 4
Verdict: Better than industry standards, but a rare product.
Animals certified GAP Step 4 are raised in conditions meaningfully better than standard industry practice; they are also significantly more expensive and can be more difficult to find, even in natural foods markets.
The GAP Step 4 label offers higher welfare conditions, providing animals daily (though not necessarily continuous) access to pasture, enrichments, and adequate space. Chickens raised for meat have higher welfare genetics. Beak trimming is prohibited for laying hens, and their transport is limited to six hours. Pigs are provided outdoor shade and wallows, but some physical alterations are still allowed, such as castration, and are not required to use anesthesia or pain relief. Beef cattle are finished on pasture, but can be forcibly weaned months earlier than they would be naturally and castrated. Dairy calves can be forcibly removed from their mothers just 12 hours after birth (as opposed to their natural weaning period of about eight months), but if they are disbudded, a sedative and pain relief must be used, and if they are castrated, a sedative and local anesthetic must be used.
Label: Global Animal Partnership Step 5
Verdict: Meaningfully better than industry practices, but a rare product.
Animals certified GAP Step 5 are raised in conditions meaningfully better than standard industry practice; they are also significantly more expensive and can be more difficult to find, even in natural foods markets.
GAP’s Step 5 label may offer some of the highest welfare conditions, such as continuous outdoor living for most species for most of their lives, often on pasture, but the products are not widely available for most consumers. For laying hens, beak trimming is prohibited. For pigs, castration and other physical alterations are prohibited, as are slatted floors. Beef calves may be weaned at about their natural weaning time, and no physical alterations are allowed. Dairy cows spend at least 120 days of each calendar year on pasture, and dairy calves can be forcibly weaned at five and a half months, as opposed to their natural weaning period of about eight months.
Label: Global Animal Partnership Step 5+
Verdict: Considerably more humane, but difficult if not impossible to find in stores.
Step 5+ label offers some of the highest welfare conditions for animals, such as continuous outdoor living on pasture on one farm, up to and including slaughter. Widely seen as an aspirational certification, GAP Step 5+ products are difficult if not impossible to find even in natural grocery stores.
Label: One Health Certified (OHC)
Despite the label’s claims that it is better for human health, the environment, and farmed animals, the program—the brainchild of one of the largest chicken companies in the U.S.—merely enshrines egregious factory farming practices related to animal welfare, antibiotics, and environmental impact. OHC’s animal welfare standards do not meet consumer expectations, allow high stocking densities for poultry, and provide no environmental enrichments. OHC’s antibiotics standards are worse than industry norms.
To prevent disease and promote growth, OHC allows the continuous administration of drugs important to human medicine, contributing to the growing antibiotic resistance crisis; most conventional industry producers limit the use of these drugs to treating sick animals or controlling disease outbreaks.
As an environmental certification, OHC requires producers to calculate their carbon footprint, but has no standard for greenhouse gas emissions or their reduction over time, and requires no monitoring for other environmental hazards, like antibiotic runoff and ammonia pollutants.
Label: Certified Humane
Verdict: Humanewashing, with some exceptions.
The Certified Humane label is the most widely available certification that indicates minimally higher animal welfare than industry standards—but it still falls short of what consumers expect from an animal welfare certification. No animals are required to be raised entirely on pasture (not even beef cattle or dairy cows), and many animals are not even required to have outdoor access.
Some physical alterations are performed without pain relief. However, small cages and close confinement that prevent animals’ freedom of movement are prohibited, and some animals are provided with enrichments that allow them to engage in limited natural behaviors. Antibiotics can be administered to treat illness, but not for growth promotion or disease prevention, though that distinction may mean little in practice.
When paired with the terms “free range” or “pasture-raised,” Certified Humane labels mean animals should have had a little more room to move, and access the outdoors. These variants of the Certified Humane label indicate conditions meaningfully better than industry standards. Because the Certified Humane label can indicate different levels of welfare, it’s important to look carefully at each product that bears a Certified Humane label to ensure that the corresponding level of welfare matches your values.
Label: Vegetarian Fed
Verdict: Means little for animal welfare.
This claim says nothing about animal welfare. This claim requires only that animals’ feed does not contain animal byproducts.
Label: Antibiotic-Free or Raised Without Antibiotics
Verdict: Meaningless, or worse.
Antibiotics and other drugs are in wide use in animal agriculture because they function to prop up sick animals. Unfortunately, since most animals raised without antibiotics are raised on cramped factory farms, what “antibiotic-free” typically means is that sick animals aren’t being treated. Simply removing antibiotics does nothing to improve welfare.
Even worse, products labeled with these claims still typically come from farm systems that require antibiotic use because these claims do not address whether antibiotics are being used to produce breeding animals who are raised to produce the animals we eat. Further, products labeled “antibiotic-free” may not actually be antibiotic-free because no one is testing to ensure the label’s accuracy.
Recent research has found residue of antibiotics important in human medicine in a meaningful percent of cattle whose meat was sold as “antibiotic-free.”
Label: Pasture Raised
Verdict: Potentially misleading, meaningless for animal welfare.
While raising animals on pasture is usually better for the animals’ welfare, without a certification (beyond just a label) you can’t be sure that the animals were raised on pasture.
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service defines “pasture-raised” as coming from animals that “had continuous, free access to the out-of-doors for a significant portion of their lives.” The catch is that the implication of the qualification “for a significant portion of their lives” is unclear.
An even greater problem is that there is often no third-party verification of how animals were actually raised. Without additional welfare certifications or regulated claims, products that carry the “Pasture Raised” claim are often meaningless for animal welfare.
Label: Free Range/Free Roaming
These claims are likely humanewashing. “Free range” and “free-roaming” are completely unregulated for use on eggs, and should be considered unreliable. For meat these terms are regulated by the USDA, but, according to Consumer Reports, the USDA will accept as little as five minutes per day of outdoor access as qualifying as free range or free roaming.
Without additional welfare certifications or regulated claims, products that carry the “free range”/“free-roaming” claim are often meaningless for animal welfare.
Label: All Natural
This claim says nothing about animal welfare. The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service defines “natural” products as those “containing no artificial ingredient or added color and [that are] only minimally processed.”
Without additional welfare certifications or regulated claims, products that carry the “natural” claim are meaningless.
Label: Humanely Raised
There is no standard definition or regulation of this claim.
Verdict: Meaningless for most animals, flawed for laying hens.
The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service defines “cage-free” as meaning that birds have never been confined to a cage. This term is only useful when applied to laying hens, who are typically kept in cages. (Chickens raised for meat in the United States are virtually never raised in cages.)
Cage-free hens are typically confined inside large barns that contain thousands or tens of thousands of birds, without access to the outdoors. There is no third-party verification of the “cage-free” claim unless it appears alongside a meaningful certification. While “cage-free” egg operations may be marginally better than those using conventional battery cages, cage-free hens still live in low-welfare conditions.
Editor’s Note: A previous, interactive version of this guide was published by Farm Forward. To view it, click here.