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The Truth Behind The Labels:
Farm Animal Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices

Report Summary:

The USDA's Role in Product Labeling & Marketing Claims

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows various product labels to be used on meat, dairy and eggs, including “cage free,” “free range,” “free roaming,” “pasture raised,” “grass fed,” “organic,” “natural,” and “naturally raised.” Many of these terms have vague, informal working definitions, and in most cases compliance is not verified through on-site audits. The agency approves labeling claims on meat and poultry products based on testimonials and documentation supplied by producers, with a couple of exceptions: the USDA does verify “cage free” conditions for egg-laying hens and “certified organic” conditions for all farm animal species.

  • Farmers are not required to provide “cage free” laying hens with access to the outdoors. Often, hens are crowded by the thousands into large barns where each bird is allotted approximately one square foot of space.
  • “Free range” birds raised for meat often lead lives very similar to their factory farmed counterparts. They may be crowded by the thousands into factory-like warehouses with no flock size limits, and the outdoor area may be little more than a barren dirt lot that is difficult for them to access.
  • “Natural” and “naturally raised” labels have little or no impact on animal welfare, and can be applied to products from animals raised in unnatural factory farm conditions. The “natural” label on animal products applies only to how meat, dairy and eggs are processed, and it has nothing to do with how the animals are treated when alive. The “naturally raised” claim is a misnomer, merely requiring that the animals be raised without antibiotics, animal by-products or synthetic growth promoters.
  • The “organic” label requires that all animals be given “access” to the outdoors, and that ruminants (i.e. grazing animals) have “access” to pasture. “Access” is not defined however, and as with free range requirements, the outdoor area may be unappealing and difficult for individual animals to reach. Organic mega-dairies have utilized loopholes in government standards to confine cows in factory farm conditions. Challenged by organic food advocates, the USDA has moved to clarify standards for pasture access.

Industry Quality Assurance Programs

Trade associations representing animal agriculture have developed voluntary industry guidelines (called “quality assurance programs”) for their members. These generally codify commonly used agricultural practices, providing agribusiness with a mechanism to redefine the meaning of the word “humane,” uphold the status quo, and deflect efforts to improve the well-being of animals on farms. They allow numerous inhumane practices, and often fail to provide animals with freedom from hunger, discomfort, pain, fear, and distress, or to allow animals to express basic natural behaviors.

While these guidelines may be found on the promotional materials of their authoring group, most do not appear on product labels. One exception is the United Egg Producers’ UEP Certified label, which is used to market eggs from hens so tightly confined in battery cages that they have almost no room to move. The hens are also debeaked – meaning that part of their beaks are seared off – and subjected to other cruel, yet common, farming practices.

Retail Food Industry Efforts

Efforts by large food industry trade groups to codify and audit specific welfare standards have been discontinued, but individual retailers have responded to pressure from consumer and animal advocacy groups. McDonald’s and Burger King, for instance, have pressed their suppliers to enact modest welfare reforms by instituting purchasing preferences for producers that do not use battery cages for egg-laying hens or gestation crates for pregnant pigs. They have also instituted audits to ensure that slaughterhouses adhere to the minimal standards set down by the American Meat Institute. However, the goals of these measures are quite modest, and they also lack transparency.

Third-Party Certification Programs

The term “humanely raised” does not originate with the USDA, although the agency approves of this claim when the meaning is defined on the label and backed by a third-party certification program. Several of these labeling schemes were developed by or in conjunction with animal welfare organizations. Third-party certification programs currently operating in the U.S. include:

Certified Humane
The Certified Humane program is administered by Humane Farm Animal Care and endorsed by some animal advocacy organizations. Standards have been created for beef cattle, dairy cattle, young dairy beef cattle (veal calves), pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, broiler (meat) chickens, and egg-laying hens. The standards were developed by animal behavior scientists and veterinarians specializing in farm animal care. These advisors also recommend revisions to the standards and assist with audits.
Certified Humane standards exceed those of industry quality assurance programs in various respects. For example:

  • Dairy cattle – Minimum of four hours daily outdoor exercise required
  • Pigs – Confinement of pregnant sows to gestation crates is prohibited, and bedding is required
  • Chickens – Litter for dust bathing is required, and slatted or wire flooring is prohibited
  • Laying hens – Confinement to wire cages is prohibited, and litter for dust bathing is required

While Certified Humane standards are stronger than industry guidelines, they permit some industry practices that cause animals to suffer and prevent them from engaging in natural behavior. For example:

  • There is no requirement that pigs, chickens raised for meat, or egg-laying hens be provided access to the outdoors
  • Feedlot confinement of beef cattle is permitted
  • Physical mutilations like debeaking hens and tail docking pigs is allowed under some circumstances

American Humane Certified
American Humane Certified (formerly Free Farmed) is administered as an in-house program of its sponsoring organization, the American Humane Association. The standards are similar to those of the Certified Humane program, although American Humane Certified also covers bison. American Humane Certified recently added video cameras at their veal production facilities and some poultry houses to help ensure compliance.
Animal Welfare Approved
The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program is administered by the Animal Welfare Institute. AWA has issued standards for beef cattle and calves, dairy cattle, pigs, chickens (layers and broilers), turkeys, and sheep. Standards for rabbits and ducks are being revised, and standards for bison are being drafted, along with standards for guard animals such as herding dogs.

Unlike other certification programs, AWA requires that participating producers be family farms, and does not charge producers for certification. AWA husbandry criteria are superior to those listed above in the areas of physical alterations, weaning and access to the outdoors and pasture. However, the program is significantly smaller in scale than the others. Though exact numbers are not available, an AWA representative estimated that less than 700 small farms were certified by the program. It is likely that fewer than 100,000 animals pass through the AWA system each year, which represents less than 0.001% of all animals slaughtered in the U.S. annually.

Global Animal Partnership 5-Step Program
Global Animal Partnership is an animal welfare auditing organization that was established in 2008 as an evolution of the Animal Compassion Foundation originally established by Whole Foods Market in 2005. Now an independent international foundation, the Global Animal Partnership is launching a pilot test of its tiered 5-Step Animal Welfare program in Whole Foods Market stores throughout 2009. Designed in collaboration with animal welfare advocates, animal welfare scientists and farmers, the program has established specific rating criteria for beef cattle, pigs and chickens raised for meat. Criteria for other species are being developed, but in general, the five steps correspond to standards outlined below (note that each step up maintains or strengthens the standards of the previous step):

Step One: No crates, no cages and no crowding
Step Two: Indoor environments must include minimal enhancements to encourage natural behaviors
Step Three: Outdoor access required along with environmental enhancements to encourage natural behaviors
Step Four: Pasture centered – improved standards for outdoor areas
Step Five: Animal centered – all physical alterations prohibited
Step Five Plus: Animal centered – the animals spend their entire life on same farm

In addition to the graduated scale described above, producers may also be required to meet higher standards on other parameters such as weaning periods, animal health metrics, transport times and so on as they work to achieve a higher step level.

Because this audit program will be applied to animal products under its purview that are sold at Whole Foods Market, it may well end up assigning ratings to products already certified by one of the programs mentioned above. As a result, some of these programs may ultimately feel increased pressure to strengthen their own standards.
As one would expect, these third-party standards focus more on animal welfare than industry programs, and therefore may prevent some of the worst systemic cruelties (such as confinement in battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates). However, some programs have higher standards than others, and as the standards become stricter, fewer producers are able to meet them, so the number of animals affected declines. To increase the number of animals covered under their programs, the larger certifying organizations have set welfare standards that may be lower than what consumers expect.


A variety of animal welfare marketing programs have arisen in response to growing popular awareness about factory farming and opposition to the inhumane treatment of farm animals. But wide variation in standards for labeling claims like “free-range,” “natural,” “humanely raised,” and “organic” make it difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to know for certain how much suffering animals endured before their meat, milk or eggs wound up on store shelves.

The USDA oversees the use of various labels on animal products. Some (e.g., “natural” and “naturally raised”) have little or no relevance to animal welfare. Others (e.g., “organic” and “free range”) are more relevant, but their requirements are vague and often interpreted to allow inhumane factory farming practices. Some of the terms sound synonymous but are not, and mean different things under different circumstances.

Agribusiness has produced standards that basically codify existing cruel practices and fail to improve farm animal welfare. A handful of third-party programs initiated by food retailers and animal welfare advocates have created programs to disallow some of the worst affronts to animal well-being. But programs affecting the most animals have the lowest standards and even the highest welfare standards can not eliminate suffering that is inherent to all forms of animal agriculture.

When animals are seen primarily as production units or commodities for sale – whether by factory farms or so-called “humane” operations – the animals’ welfare tends to be secondary to economic concerns.

Farm Sanctuary has learned from more than two decades caring for rescued farm animals, that when given the opportunity, family units stay together. However, when animals are raised for food under any conditions, most are denied familial relationships. Chicks are ordered from hatcheries and shipped via the postal service. (Male chicks born at egg hatcheries are killed after sexing as they are considered of no use to the industry.) Dairy calves are removed from their mothers so that the milk their mothers biologically produce for them can be marketed to humans. Lambs and piglets are weaned and removed from their mothers to be fattened for slaughter.

Regardless of the welfare standards followed at any farm, all animals raised for food are slaughtered at young ages – broiler chickens 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. 

According to Webster’s Dictionary, “humane” means “characterized by kindness, mercy or compassion.” Commodifying and slaughtering sentient animals is incompatible with this definition.

Comparison Charts of Animal Welfare Standards by Program:
Beef Cattle
Dairy Cattle
Broiler (Meat) Chickens
Egg Laying Hens


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