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.
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™: Mandates more space than most modern industrial farms, but outdoor access is not required for birds, beef cattle or pigs. Pain relief is not required during physical alterations, and the use of cages for egg-laying hens is permitted. These standards apply to breeding animals, transport and slaughter.
American Grassfed Association® Certified: Under this certification, ruminants—animals with a special pre-digestive stomach like cows, sheep and goats—have continuous access to pasture and follow a 100% forage-based diet without the use of feedlots. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic (preventative or growth-promoting) antibiotics are prohibited; however, pain relief is not required during physical alterations. These standards do not apply to breeding animals, transport or slaughter.
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Animal Welfare Approved: AWA requires farm animals have continuous access to outdoors—specifically, pasture or range—and are provided enrichment opportunities to express natural behaviors. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics are prohibited. Beak-cutting and tail-docking are also prohibited, and pain relief must be administered during horn removal in cattle. Breeds that have been genetically selected for production to the extent that they suffer are also prohibited. These standards apply to breeding animals, transport and slaughter.
Certified Humane®: Ruminants must have continual outdoor access, but not birds or pigs; however, space allowance is specified and enrichment opportunities are required. Feedlots, cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics are all prohibited. Beak-cutting and tail-docking are permitted under certain circumstances. These standards apply to breeding animals, transport and slaughter.
Global Animal Partnership® (GAP): GAP is a six-“step” animal welfare rating program with each step indicating a welfare improvement tier: Step 1 prohibits cages and crates; Step 2 requires environmental enrichment for indoor production; Step 3 requires outdoor access; Step 4 requires pasture-based production; Step 5 prohibits feedlots and physical alterations; and Step 5+ requires that animals spend their entire lives on the same integrated farm, prohibiting off-site transport. Hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics are prohibited at all levels. Standards apply to transport, but not to breeding animals or slaughter.
USDA Organic: Farm animals must be allowed outdoor access, but the size, duration and quality are undefined and vary widely. Cage confinement, hormone use and antibiotics administered beyond the first day of life are prohibited. Beak-cutting, tail-docking and horn removal without pain relief are permitted. The standards do not address minimum indoor space requirements, handling, transport or slaughter.
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: The routine use of “subtherapeutic” antibiotics for disease prevention or growth is often associated with confined, unhealthy conditions. While a lack of antibiotic use can indicate a healthier overall environment, it is not a guarantee of better animal welfare. The claim “antibiotic free” is not permitted for use by the USDA as testing cannot verify that an animal has never received antibiotics; however, the USDA does allow the claims “no antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics” if producers provide documentation that antibiotics were not administered at any point in the animals’ lives.
Free-range/Free-roaming: When found on chicken and turkey products, excluding eggs, this term is defined by the USDA and indicates the birds had outdoor access, although size, duration and quality of that outdoor space are undefined. For non-poultry species, producers are not required to provide evidence of any outdoor access and the term is not USDA regulated.
Grass-fed: A diet of 100% grass or dried grass (hay) is required but animals may be confined to feedlots. Subtherapeutic antibiotic and hormone use is allowed. Physical alterations without any pain relief are also permitted.
Hormone claims: Hormone use in milk- and meat-producing cattle to increase yield is often associated with welfare problems such as lameness brought on by the weight of the unnaturally high milk production. While the USDA does not approve “hormone-free” claims, as all animals produce hormones naturally, “no hormones added” and “no hormones administered” claims can be used on beef and dairy products if producers can show documentation that no hormones were administered to the animal during its lifetime. Any hormone claims on chicken, turkey or pork products are meaningless as no hormones have been approved for use on poultry or pigs by the FDA and so none of those animals are administered hormones.
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/Naturally Raised/All-Natural: 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.
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.