Independence Day is tomorrow and freedom is in the air. The word “free” is all over our food in the form of labels that can be confusing and sometimes misleading when it comes to the welfare of the animals. Below we explain three labels you may see in the supermarket and what they really mean for animals.
Cage-Free Cage-free means just that: no cage. Chickens raised for meat live mostly in sheds on the ground, not in cages, so it’s a fairly meaningless label on meat packages. That said, over 90% of the 280 million egg-laying hens in this country live crammed into wire cages with less space to move than a sheet of paper. Cage-free eggs come from chickens who are not subjected to this confinement and can engage in some important chicken behaviors, like laying eggs in nests, dust bathing, and spreading their wings. This is a significant improvement. But there is no real space or outdoor requirement with the cage-free label, so if the farm does the bare minimum, these birds can still live in overcrowded, poor conditions.
Free Range People may think of green pastures when they hear the term “free-range,” but unfortunately that’s rarely the case. The term only has regulated meaning when applied to chickens raised for meat, not to eggs or to any other animals. Ninety-nine percent of the nine billion chickens raised for meat in this country live in huge, barren sheds by the thousands crowded on top of each other and their own waste. To qualify as “free-range,” chickens need only have access to the outdoors for an unspecified amount of time, and that does not have to be pasture, it can be a small concrete enclosure.
Hormone-Free The term “hormone-free” is not approved by the USDA on any meat products. In fact, the USDA actually prohibits the use of hormones on pigs or chickens, so all pork and poultry products that make claims about hormones are just following the law. In the case of beef and dairy cattle, federal regulations do permit the use of hormones like recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST), a synthetic growth hormone injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. The labels “raised without hormones,” “no hormones administered,” and “not treated with rBGH” mean the animals were not exposed to hormones during their lives, but certainly does not indicate a higher level of animal welfare.
Kathy M. shared the following story with us about meeting and adopting a lively cat named Harmony at the ASPCA Adoption Center in Manhattan, and how Harmony has expressed her mischievous personality each and every day since.
In March 2011, I took a trip to the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City to adopt a cat. I had lost my beloved kitty, Oliver, about a month earlier, and I was looking for another kitty companion to love. My friend Michelle, who had also loved Oliver, accompanied me to the Adoption Center.
Michelle spotted Harmony before I did and pointed her out to me. I looked and saw a beautiful black and brown female tabby with lively, alert eyes. A volunteer showed us other cats as well, but when we saw a group of people looking at Harmony, Michelle and I both had an "Uh oh!" moment. I decided nobody else was going to have MY cat!
I had another slight "Uh oh!" moment when the front desk volunteers told me that Harmony had aggressive play habits. She was only eight months old, smack in the middle of feline adolescence, and teenage cats can be as obnoxious as teenage humans. By that time, I was hooked—I had fallen in love with Harmony and was going to take her home, no matter what.
The volunteers did not exaggerate. Life with Harmony has been an adventure. She is very smart, and eager to find some creative ways to make mischief.
As she grew older, her personality has mellowed. It must have helped to know she’s in a place where she is loved and appreciated for the lively, intelligent little being that she is.
Harmony is smart, very funny and full of personality and love. I'm so happy to have her in my life, and I think she feels the same way about me.