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 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.
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.
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.
For those who eat animal products, knowing that label requirements can be interpreted broadly, it’s worth seeking out independently certified labels with public standards and third party audits of the farms to ensure basic animal welfare. To learn more, visit the ASPCA’s Farm Animal Welfare campaign.