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Decoding "Humane" Food Labels

Food product labels that read “free-range,” “cage-free,” “certified humane” and more sound nice, but what do they really mean? You may be surprised. Many labels are just marketing strategies to placate the increasingly animal-compassionate consumer; however, a few labels do hold some meaning when it comes to the animals’ welfare.

We’ve identified the top three labels to look for if you are purchasing meat, dairy products or eggs but are concerned about the treatment of the animals who provided them.

1. Animal Welfare Approved


Administered by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), this label has the most stringent guidelines. It is only issued to meat that comes from independent family farms so it may be difficult to find, but products with this label are the most humane meat products on the market.

What it means: Animals must be able to perform natural behaviors, have continuous access to water, outdoor access, and appropriate shelter. They cannot be overcrowded and must have ample room for freedom of movement and exercise. Producers must agree to compliance visits by AWI or one of its agents.

What’s prohibited: Cages, crates, tethers, genetic engineering, growth hormones, antibiotics to encourage rapid weight gain and/or to compensate for unsanitary living conditions, feed or feed supplements containing animal products or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), tail-docking, debeaking, detusking of breeding male pigs, sow crates and hot branding.

For more information, visit


2. Certified Humane


What it means: Animals have access to clean and sufficient food and water, are able to perform natural behaviors, and have enough room to move around freely. Chickens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses unless they are “free-range.” Dairy cattle must have a minimum of four hours of exercise per day. Pork and beef processors are held to higher standards for slaughtering farm animals than required by the federal Humane Slaughter Act and must comply with certain environmental standards. Third-party inspectors who are animal welfare experts verify that Certified Humane producers are in compliance

What’s prohibited: Cages, crates, tethers, growth hormones, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, restrictive farrowing crates for sows, and forced molting in birds through starvation.

What’s allowed: Debeaking (birds) and tail-docking (pigs). Outdoor access and natural daylight are not required for all species.

For more information, visit


3. American Humane Certified


What it means: While not as comprehensive as the previous two labels, American Humane-Certified does guarantee that animals have access to adequate food and water, are able to perform natural behaviors, and are not overcrowded and have freedom of movement. While 100 percent compliance is required to be certified, minor violations found during the initial inspection do not necessarily disqualify the producer. Approved producers are given the opportunity to correct any violations and may be suspended for non-compliance.

What’s prohibited: Crates, cages, tethers, use of hormones and non-therapeutic antibiotics.

What’s allowed: Debeaking, tail-docking and sow crates. Outdoor access is not required.

For more information, visit


Note: As of March 2008, United Egg Producers (UEP) will consider eggs bearing the American Humane Certified seal to also be UEP Certified and can display both logos if the producers meet some additional criteria. The UEP Certified program guidelines are designed to audit modern cage or cage-free systems based on scientific standards for animal welfare. For more information visit

Want to know more? Read about "Commonly Used Food Labeling Terms" here.

American Humane (
Animal Welfare Institute (
Farm Sanctuary “An Assessment of Product Labeling Claims, Industry Quality Assurance Guidelines and Third Party Certification Standards” (
Humane Farm Animal Care – Certified Humane Raised & Handled (
The Humane Society of the United States (
Satya Magazine, Sept 2006 - “Decoding the Label: A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and their Relevance to Animal Welfare”
Whole Foods Market (