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"Humane" Meat, Milk and Eggs

With growing concerns about the cruel treatment of animals exploited for meat, milk and eggs, some food sellers are now labeling products to suggest that farm animals are being treated humanely. But while some animals may suffer less than others, they still suffer, and the claims made on these labels can mislead consumers about how well the animals are actually treated. The ways animals are raised for the “humane” market vary widely, and they may not be consistent with what consumers envision.


Labels such as “free range,” “free roaming,” and “cage free” provide no assurance that animals are treated humanely, and animal suffering is common despite labels suggesting otherwise:

  • Overcrowding: Egg laying hens in cage free operations are typically crowded by the thousands in large barns, with approximately one square foot of space allotted each bird. “Cage free” laying hens are not required to have access to the outdoors, and for “free range” and “free roaming” hens, access to the outdoors can be severely restricted and poorly designed. Under these labels, there are no limits on flock size and their outdoor area may be little more than a barren dirt lot that is difficult for them to access.
  • Debeaking: Virtually all hens slated for egg production have the ends of their beaks removed without anesthesia, causing both acute and chronic pain.
  • Inhumane culling: Commercial hatcheries supply hens to both factory farms and smaller egg farms, and the male chicks are unwanted and treated as a waste product. Common methods of killing and disposal include suffocation and being ground up alive. When egg laying hens’ productivity declines and they are no longer profitable to the egg industry, they are sent to slaughter or otherwise killed.


“Free range” birds raised for meat may lead lives very similar to their factory farmed counterparts. To sell their meat as “free range,” producers need only apply for a USDA “free range” label with a description of the birds’ housing stating that they are able to have continuous free access to the outdoors for more than 51% of their lives. There is neither a definition of “access” nor independent verification of the statements producers make, and the USDA relies solely on producer testimony:

  • Birds are often packed together by the thousands, and like the egg industry, poultry producers are not held to any requirements on flock size or the amount of outdoor space given to birds.
  • Chickens and turkeys have been genetically altered through selective breeding to grow twice as fast and twice as large as their ancestors and suffer various physical maladies as a result. There is no prohibition on the use of these breeds in “free range” operations.
  • Even if birds are raised under conditions that consumers associate with the term “free-range,” they can still end up at the same slaughterhouses that kill factory raised birds and experience cruel handling, ineffective stunning and botched kills that prolong suffering before death.


Regardless of the size or type of the operation, there are inherent problems with commercial dairy production.   

  • Just like humans and other mammals, cows must give birth to produce milk. Their calves are taken away after birth, usually immediately. This is known to cause psychological trauma for both cow and calf.
  • At about two months into their lactation cycle, dairy cows are typically re-impregnated to ensure ongoing production. Carrying a baby and producing milk at the same time is physically taxing.
  • Pushed to their biological limits, dairy cows’ bodies commonly wear out after just a few years in production, and they are sent to slaughter. Most become ground beef.   
  • Male calves born on dairies are of little value to the dairy industry. Some are slaughtered for cheap (bob) veal shortly after birth, while others may be kept alive for about four months and chained inside dark crates, before they are slaughtered for “white” veal. Others are raised and slaughtered for beef.


Finally, all animals raised for meat, dairy or egg production—whether factory farmed or otherwise—meet the same cruel end at the slaughterhouse, where their throats are cut and they bleed to death. Poultry, who comprise more than 95% of the animals slaughtered, are excluded from the federal Humane Slaughter Act.

Regardless of the welfare standards followed at any farm, all animals raised for food are slaughtered at young ages – broiler chickens at around 42 days when they could live four years or more, pigs at 6 months when they could live 9 years or more, beef cattle at less than two years when they could live 20 years or more, dairy cows at 4 to 6 years when they could live 25 years, and veal calves at only four months. No matter how well they are treated, these animals’ lives are cut drastically short.

When animals are seen primarily as production units or commodities for sale (whether on factory farms or on so-called “humane” operations), the animals’ welfare tends to be secondary to economic concerns. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “humane” means “characterized by kindness, mercy or compassion.” Commodifying and slaughtering sentient animals is incompatible with this definition.

To find out more about “humane” claims and compassionate alternatives, visit Farm Sanctuary’s Truth Behind the Labels Campaign.


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