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September 2006
Decoding the Label: A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and their Relevance to Animal Welfare
Compiled by Kymberlie Adams Matthews


Consumers may notice an influx in the variety of labels on meat and dairy these days. Humane, grass-fed, organic…what exactly do these mean? Some of them represent adherence to actual guidelines, while others are unverifiable and may falsely advertise the conditions in which the animals lived.

Quality assurance programs and guidelines like “antibiotic free” and “cage-free” created by animal agriculture trade associations and individual producers were developed—with little or no public input—by scientists and industry officials with no expertise in animal welfare. Such guidelines fail to provide animals with freedom from hunger, discomfort, pain, fear and distress. Areas of transportation, genetic selection and the breeding of animals are also ignored.

By comparison, third party certification standards like “organic,” may help lessen animal suffering, but significant deficiencies still exist in these as well. The following is a decoding of the most common labels. Claims listed in quotation marks—Certified Organic, Certified Humane, and Free Farmed Certified—are programs with specific guidelines or standards, whereas the remaining claims are essentially only labels.?

Industry Standards

Animal Care Certified
The United Egg Producers (UEP) became the first industry trade association to develop a voluntary certification program for farmed animals. Unfortunately, the original standards set for the Animal Care Certified program did little to improve the welfare of hens raised in factory farms, serving primarily as a marketing tool to promote the sale of battery cage-produced eggs in response to heightened consumer interest in welfare standards. In 2004, the Better Business Bureau filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission stating that the Animal Care Certified seal is misleading advertising and recommended that use of the seal be discontinued. As a result, a new logo, “United Egg Producers Certified,” will take its place and hopefully not mislead consumers with the false message of humane animal care.

Who verifies this claim?
The Animal Care Certified claim is no longer active.

United Egg Producers Certified
The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited but debeaking is allowed.

Who verifies this claim?
Compliance is verified through third party auditing by the United Egg Producers (

Third Party Certification

Certified Humane Raised and Handled
Animals must be kept in conditions which allow for exercise and freedom of movement. Crates, cages and tethers are?prohibited, but outdoor access is not required. Stocking densities are specified to ensure animals are not overcrowded, and animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. For poultry, forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is permitted. Compliance is verified through third party auditing. Producers also must comply with environmental standards.

Who verifies this claim?
Certified Humane?is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC; A consortium of animal welfare organizations, individuals and foundations fund HFAC, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the U.S. Farms wishing to be certified must be inspected. In addition, the USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Livestock and Seed Program verifies the inspection process of this program.

Certified Organic
Animals must be allowed outdoor access. Cows, sheep and goats must be given access to pasture. (Consumers should be aware of concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing meaningful access to the outdoors.) Animals must be provided with bedding materials. Use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited. Animals must eat 100 percent organic feed that does not contain any animal byproducts or growth hormones. Currently, there are no federal or state programs to certify aquatic animals, including fish, as organic.

Who verifies this claim?
Certified Organic, Inc. ( verifies that farmers and producers meet the standards set by the USDA National Organic Program. USDA does not verify products but does accredit all organic certifiers to be able to use the Certified Organic, Inc. or USDA organic labels.

Free Farmed Certified
Based in part on the Freedom Food standards created by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, these guidelines include access to clean and sufficient food and conditions which allow for freedom of movement. Crates, cages and tethers are not prohibited. Outdoor access is not required. Stocking densities are specified to ensure animals are not overcrowded, and animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited.

Who verifies this claim?

Started in 2000, this program is administered through the American Humane Association (AHA; The USDA/AMS service is paid to conduct on-site assessments of only 25 percent of certified farms. AHA uses One Cert, an inspection company accredited by the USDA.

Other Labels

The USDA considers this term “un-approvable” on any meat products. Yet, they allow producers to label meat and poultry products with “no antibiotics administered” or “raised without antibiotics.” These claims only imply that the animals did not receive any antibiotics during the course of their life, but is unverifiable. There is no organization behind this claim other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product.

Birds raised for meat, unlike those raised for eggs, are rarely caged prior to transport and, therefore, this label on poultry products has no relevance to animal welfare. However, eggs labeled “cage-free” indicate the hens are not kept in battery cages. Instead, they are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and do not generally have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in some of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. But debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third party auditing.

The USDA has defined “free-range” or “free roaming” for poultry products but not for eggs. Birds should have outdoor access, but information on frequency or duration does not have to be provided and stocking densities are not required. Many shoppers think the animal has spent a portion of its life outdoors, foraging, dusting and running. Yet in reality, the government only requires that outdoor access be made available for “an undetermined period each day,” leaving it up to the producers. Producers submit affidavits to the USDA supporting their animal production claims to receive approval for this label.

This claim has little relevance to animal welfare, but feeding ruminants—cows, sheep and goats—high levels of grain can cause liver abscesses and problems with lameness. As such, those labeled “grain-fed” most likely come from animals who suffered under lower welfare standards than those labeled “grass-fed.” There is no organization behind this claim other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product.

Grass-Fed and Pasture-Raised
Animals must have access to the outdoors and be able to engage in some natural behaviors such as grazing. However, no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access must be provided, or on the quality of the land accessible to the animals must be given. Producers only have to submit affidavits to the USDA supporting their claims in order to receive approval for these labels.

Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free and No Hormones Added
Use of the term “hormone-free” is considered “un-approvable” by the USDA on any meat products. Meat and poultry products carrying the “no hormones administered” claim imply that the animal must not have received any added hormones during the course of its lifetime. These labels on dairy products mean cows were not injected with rBGH or rBST, genetically engineered hormones that increase milk production. Chicken and pig producers are not legally allowed to use hormones. There is no organization behind this claim other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product. The USDA has defined the use of the term and can hold manufacturers accountable for using “hormone-free” on meat products.

This claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

These animals are given a more natural feed, presumably free of animal flesh and blood, but this claim is not verifiable and does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.

Resources: Humane Society of the United States (, Farm Sanctuary ( and Eco Labels (


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