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A growing number of companies are marketing meat and dairy as 'humanely raised'. We take a closer look at the reality behind the label.
Words by Grace Hussain
A growing number of shoppers are thinking about farm animals when they head to the grocery store and food companies are vying for their dollars. You’re now more likely than ever to find eggs, dairy and meat plastered with a label that implies the animals were humanely raised. But can you trust what’s on the package? Despite the claims, the differences between humanely raised foods can be significant and, more importantly, difficult to verify. Here’s what we know — and what we don’t — about humanely raised food labels.
Claims about the treatment of the animals behind your pork chops, steaks and chicken wings are often peppered with opaque and largely or completely unregulated language, intended to appeal to consumers rather than inform them. Most ‘humanely raised’ certification programs aren’t overseen by the government, and many have only minimal standards for the farmer responsible for these animals.
Because of how easy it is for production companies to use language and certifications on their packaging claiming to be humane, the practice has popularly become known as “humanewashing.” Like greenwashing, humanewashing appeals to consumers’ desire to do the right thing, but a closer look at how these foods are actually produced shows just how often the reality fails to live up to the ideal depicted on the food label.
The truth is almost all animals raised for food spend their lives on crowded and cramped factory farms until their deaths. These systems and the inevitable final moments of slaughter call into question whether humanely raised meat is possible at all. Steps towards reform are modest. On June 14, 2023, the USDA announced a new effort to strengthen animal welfare labeling claims by issuing new industry guidelines to address marketing like “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised.” What the final regulations and their enforcement look like remains to be seen.
There are several farming practices that have come to be associated with humane treatment. Among these are cage-free eggs and pasture-raised beef. Though raising egg-laying hens without cages does represent an improvement over housing them inside cages where each chicken has no more space than an A4 piece of paper, animal ethics experts argue the pitfalls inherent in raising chickens industrially for food prevent any product labeled “humane” from reaching that high bar.
Most claims that appear on packaging without third-party certification only require that paperwork attesting to living conditions be submitted to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). There is no additional verification process to ensure that the claims in the paperwork are accurate, or that what is described in those papers actually improves the welfare of farmed animals.
Pasture-raised cattle are more likely to spend their lives munching on grass in a field until their slaughter — but these welfare gains come with the massive environmental downside of surging climate emissions. Overgrazing is also detrimental to other wildlife like native elk, not to mention plant and soil health.
As welfare claims go, the term “grass-fed” is perhaps one of the most confusing. Consumers may believe that grass-fed meat is sourced from animals who spend their lives foraging in open fields. In reality, animals raised in a grass-fed system are usually fed a wide variety of different grasses such as the stalks of legumes and grains, but that doesn’t mean they were raised on pasture. Adding to further confusion, some products that are labeled grass-fed may come from animals who ate grass at some point in their lives, but not necessarily over their entire life.
While “raised indoors with enrichment” is rarely seen on packaging as a stand-alone statement, the requirement is standard for several humane-label certification programs. In chicken barns for instance, producers are required to provide enriched housing with hay bales or elevated resting areas. These improvements do boost welfare, though the birds are still susceptible to the painful health problems that arise from decades of industrial breeding.
The “Raised Without Antibiotics” label is an increasingly common sight at grocery stores — driven in large part by a growing public awareness of the public health threat of antibiotic resistance. While better controls on antibiotic use is a step in the right direction, one downside is some farms never give animals antibiotics but still fail to address the cramped conditions that make them highly susceptible to such injury and disease in the first place.
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act outlines the legal requirements for how animals must be slaughtered, including the use of stunning prior to their death, though an exception is made for religious slaughter.
Beyond that rule, broad claims pertaining to how an animal was raised such as “humanely handled” or “humanely raised” go above and beyond what is laid out in the law. These labels imply that the animal enjoyed high welfare not only in life but also during the slaughter process, but the reality, however, is that there are no federal guidelines governing what these claims actually mean for the animals. Most farms are only required to submit paperwork demonstrating that they met their own standards, with no further oversight.
There are a vast array of different humane certifications that get slapped onto meat products. Each of them has unique guidelines that producers must follow, and most of them perform in-person inspections to verify whether farmers are following the rules. However, the programs are all different, and some offer only the bare minimum of improvement over standard conditions.
Certified Humane can be found on an array of animal-derived foods. Though the label outlines minimum standards for space and enrichment, it does not require that every animal have access to the outdoors. Under some circumstances, producers are also allowed to conduct the painful practices of tail docking and beak trimming.
American Humane is one of the easier certifications for producers to qualify for, as most of their standards are barely better than conventional farming practices, and standards need not be met in order to gain certification.
Administered by A Greener World, Certified Animal Welfare Approved is one of the most rigorous welfare certification programs in existence. The group requires farmers to raise animals outdoors on pasture or range for their entire lives, and also details specific guidelines for transportation and slaughter.
While American Grassfed certified animals enjoy a diet made up completely of forage, the program standards do not require pain management for tail docking and other physical alterations, plus these rules also lack transport guidelines.
Unlike the other certification programs, GAP rates farms on a scale of 1 to 5. Animals raised at farms rated levels 4, 5 and 5+ consume exclusively forage while animals raised on farms rated 5 and 5+ also prohibit tail docking and other forms of animal mutilation.
Humanewashing describes the use of labels and marketing language to convince consumers that the farm animals they are consuming lived good lives. More often than not, humanely raised claims mean very little, and sometimes nothing at all.
There is no evidence to suggest that meat raised humanely is any better for you, the person eating the meat. No matter how the animal is raised, a number of studies link eating lots of red and processed meats with an increased cancer risk.
There are public health risks to consider too — including the increasing threat of zoonotic diseases that comes from continuing to eat raise billions of farm animals globally for food. Animal farms provide the ideal environment for diseases to adapt and spread to people. Several diseases have already made the jump from farmed animals such as pigs and chickens to humans, and experts agree that it’s only a matter of time until a pathogen spreads again, mutating to such a degree that it results in the next global pandemic.
Animal welfare certification programs can offer animals some measure of reduced suffering — but their actual treatment depends on the label itself and whether there is any real oversight. If you want to eat the most humane diet possible, opt for eating more plants and less meat, eggs and dairy, as much as you can.
To find other ways to contribute to humane ways of eating and treating animals, check out our take action page.
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