Free-range, cage-free, all natural…what does it all mean, and how do these claims impact animal welfare? To the average consumer, these terms can be confusing, overwhelming and, at times, misleading. That’s why we’ve compiled some of the most common food labels and what they really mean for farm animals, so you’ll always be informed when you hit the supermarket aisle.
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These programs are administered by private organizations or by the USDA; compliance to the defined standards is verified by independent auditors. Please note that we are providing links to these programs’ websites for informational purposes only.
American Humane Certified™: Access to outdoors not required for birds, beef cattle or pigs. More space required than in conventional farms but less than other animal welfare certifications. Cages with enrichment for egg-laying hens permitted. Standards extend to breeding animals, transport and slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors.
American Grassfed Association® Certified: Ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) have continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100% forage (no feedlots). Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic (preventative or growth-promoting) antibiotics prohibited. Standards do not extend to breeding animals, transport or slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors.
Animal Welfare Approved: Continuous access to pasture or range. No feedlots. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics prohibited. Standards extend to breeding animals, transport and slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors. Represents a very significant improvement over conventional standards.
Certified Humane®: Continuous outdoor access for ruminants. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics prohibited. Outdoor access not required for birds and pigs, but minimum space allowance and bedding required for indoor environments. Feedlots permitted with better than conventional standards. Standards extend to breeding animals, transport and slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors. Represents a significant improvement over conventional standards.
Global Animal Partnership® (GAP): Global Animal Partnership® (GAP): Six “step” rating program for animals raised for meat—not eggs or milk. No requirement to move up steps. Step 1: Cages and crates prohibited. Animals can be kept fully indoors or on feedlots with a minimum space allowance. Step 2: Indoor environmental enrichment required. Step 3: Outdoor access required but not pasture. Step 4: Access to pasture required. Step 5: Feedlots prohibited. Step 5+: Animals must spend entire lives on one farm. Off-site transport prohibited. Hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics prohibited at all steps. Standards extend to transport but not breeding animals or slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors. Steps 2 and above represent a significant improvement over conventional standards.
USDA Organic: Outdoor access required but size, duration and quality not defined and widely variable. Cage confinement and hormones prohibited. Antibiotics prohibited beyond first day of life. Minimum indoor space, handling, transport, and slaughter not addressed. Compliance verified by auditors.
Common Terms and Claims
It’s important to note that while some of these terms are legally defined by the USDA, others lack clear definitions altogether and have no verification process or oversight, allowing farm conditions to vary widely across producers.
Antibiotic claims: Routine use of “subtherapeutic” antibiotics for disease prevention or growth is associated with confined, unhealthy conditions. Lack of antibiotic use can indicate a healthier overall environment but is not a guarantee of better welfare. “Antibiotic free” claim not allowed because antibiotic residue testing technology can’t verify animal never received antibiotics. “No antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics” claims allowed by USDA if producers prove antibiotics were not added/administered at any point.
Free-range/Free-roaming: On chicken and turkey products—but not eggs—indicates birds had access to outdoors, though size, duration and quality of space are undefined and vary widely. For non-poultry species, producers don’t need to provide evidence to USDA of any outdoor access.
Grass-fed: Pasture access during most of growth required, but feedlots allowed in final months. Antibiotics and hormones allowed.
Hormone claims: Hormone use in milk- and meat-producing cattle to increase production and weight is associated with welfare problems. “No hormones added” or “no hormones administered” claims are allowed if producers prove no hormones were used during animal’s life. “Hormone-free” claims are not approved by USDA since all animals produce hormones naturally. Hormones are prohibited for use on chickens, turkeys and pigs so this label is meaningless on products from those species.
Humanely Raised/Humanely Handled: The USDA does not clearly define these terms, nor does it independently verify the claims. Therefore the terms offer no assurance about the animals’ welfare.
Natural: As defined by USDA, this term only refers to how meat is processed after slaughter, not how an animal was raised.
Naturally Raised: The USDA does not clearly define or verify this term, nor do they offer any assurances about the conditions in which animals are raised.
Pasture-raised/Pasture-grown: While access to pasture is preferable to confined, indoor systems, the term is not regulated by the USDA and no independent verifications of these claims exist.
Vegetarian-fed/Grain-fed: These claims do not have a significant impact on animals’ living conditions and are not regulated by the USDA. However, feeding ruminants large amounts of grain, as opposed to vegetation-based diet, can cause liver abscesses, stomach problems and lameness.
Note: Many labels above allow certain physical alterations, such as castration, branding, beak cutting, tooth grinding or clipping, tail cutting and other procedures. Pain control is sometimes but not always required. These practices, which can be painful, are usually done to reduce injuries from behavior resulting from over-crowded, stressful living conditions. To read their full standards, visit the labels’ websites.