Meat, Eggs and Dairy Label Guide

Common Claims | ASPCA Recommended Certifications | Other Certifications | Further Resources

Common Claims

The terms below, which often appear on the packaging of meat, egg and dairy products, may indicate better animal welfare but lack strong standards and have no on-farm verification processes, meaning farm conditions and the treatment of animals vary widely across producers.

Antibiotic ClaimsRoutine feeding of antibiotics is common on industrial farms to compensate for unhealthy confinement conditions or to promote growth. This overuse has led to the growth of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” which have serious impacts on public health. “Antibiotic-free” is not an approved claim because the USDA cannot verify that any product contains no antibiotic residue. “No antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics” are claims allowed by the USDA if producers provide documentation showing that antibiotics were not introduced at any point in the animal’s life. Prohibiting antibiotic use on farms can indicate a healthier overall environment for animals, but there is no guarantee of that. In fact, bans may lead producers to withhold necessary treatment from sick animals. For products from farms using antibiotics in a more restrained way that protects both human health and animal well-being, look for one of the ASPCA-recommended certifications below.
Cage-Free Claims“Cage-free” claims ensure that cages are prohibited, though they provide no other specifications or requirements on how to rear hens more humanely. For egg products from hens who are reared in cage-free environments with more space, necessary enrichment like perches and nests, and, in some cases, outdoor or pasture access, look for one of the ASPCA-recommended certifications below. Note: Chickens and turkeys raised for meat (as opposed to eggs) are not typically caged, rendering a cage-free label meaningless on poultry meat products.
Free-Range ClaimsMost farm animals are housed entirely indoors. The USDA requires producers using “free-range” or “free-roaming” claims to demonstrate that animals have “access to the outdoors,” but size, quality and length of access to that outdoor space is unregulated, so conditions vary greatly and are often subpar. For products from animals raised outdoors with adequate space, look for Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership (Step 3 and above) or Certified Humane egg/poultry products that also say “free-range.” Learn more below.
Grass-Fed ClaimsCows naturally consume grass as part of their diet, but over the past several decades, the beef industry has switched to feeding cows mostly grain (e.g. corn), which negatively impacts cows’ health. The USDA does not have an official definition for “grass-fed” claims. Pasture access during the animal’s life is required, but producers are allowed to define the specifics themselves, resulting in huge variations, many of which are subpar. Feedlots are allowed in final months, as are antibiotics and hormones. Only “100% grass-fed” animals must be fed an entirely grass-based diet. For products from animals raised on pasture for their entire lives, look for Animal Welfare Approved or Global Animal Partnership (Step 4 and above). Learn more below.
Hormone ClaimsHormone use in milk- and meat-producing cattle to increase production and weight is associated with welfare problems. The USDA allows “no hormones added” or “no hormones administered” claims if producers provide documentation that no hormones were used during the animal’s life, but this does not indicate more humane farming methods. Hormones are legally prohibited from use on chickens, turkeys and pigs, so this label is meaningless on products from those species. “Hormone-free” claims are not approved by USDA since all animals produce hormones naturally. For products from animals who were not given hormones and lived in higher welfare environments, look for one of the ASPCA-recommended certifications below.
Humane ClaimsThe USDA does not define “humanely raised” or “humanely handled,” instead allowing producers to provide their own definitions, which are often based on standards employed on factory farms—therefore, the terms offer no assurance about animal welfare. For products from animals raised more humanely, look for ASPCA-recommended certifications that ban intensive confinement, require enriched, more spacious environments, and require on-farm checks by independent auditors to verify that hundreds of standards were met. Learn more below.
Natural Claims“Natural” as defined by USDA, only refers to how meat is processed after slaughter, not how an animal was raised. The USDA does not define “naturally raised,” nor does it require producers to offer any assurances about the conditions in which animals were raised to use this claim. For products from animals raised in more natural environments that allow them to engage in natural behaviors, look for one of the ASPCA-recommended certifications, below.
Pasture ClaimsWhile access to pasture is preferable to confined, indoor systems, the terms “pasture-raised,” “pasture-grown” and “pastured” are only loosely regulated by the USDA. This results in widely varying interpretations and animals sometimes spending very little time on pasture. For products from animals raised on pasture for their entire lives, look for a “pasture-raised” claim that is backed up by one of these certification labels: Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership levels (Step 4 and above) or Certified Humane egg products. Learn more below.
Vegetarian-FedThe USDA requires that producers using “vegetarian-fed” claims provide documentation about the animals’ diet. These claims do not have a significant impact on animals’ living conditions, nor are they inherently better for animals. In fact, some farm animals, like chickens, are omnivores – eating grubs and insects as well as grains. For products from animals fed healthy diets, look for one of the ASPCA-recommended certifications below.

ASPCA Recommended Certifications

The ASPCA recommends that those who eat or buy meat, eggs or dairy seek out products bearing the logo of one of the checkmarked certifications below. These third-party verified programs represent a spectrum of better ways to raise animals—from enriched indoor environments to pasture-based farming—but all offer animals significantly better lives than conventional factory farms. We encourage consumers to learn about each program’s standards and to sign up to Shop With Your Heart.

AWA certified

Animal Welfare Approved
Continuous access to pasture or range. No feedlots. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic (preventative or growth-promoting) antibiotics prohibited. Standards extend to breeding animals, transport and slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors on every farm. Represents a very significant improvement over conventional standards.

Certified Humane®

Certified Humane®
Continuous outdoor access for ruminants. Outdoor access not required for birds and pigs, unless the words “free-range” or “pasture” also appear on the packages. When used on egg products, this ensures the farm is adhering to defined outdoor standards. If indoors, more space, bedding and enrichment are required for pigs and birds. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics prohibited. Feedlots permitted for limited periods, with better-than-conventional standards. Standards extend to transport and slaughter. Certified Humane audits every farm, except for its “producer groups,” wherein participating farms conduct a percentage of audits instead. Represents a significant improvement over conventional standards.

Global Animal Partnership

Global Animal Partnership® (GAP)
Six-level rating program for animals raised for meat and eggs—not milk. Each successive level represents progressively higher welfare and includes all requirements of those below it. Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics prohibited at all levels. Standards extend to transport and slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors on every farm. Levels 2 and above represent a significant improvement over conventional standards. When a product shows the basic GAP label without a number, look for separate language on the package identifying the product’s numerical level.

Level 1Cages and crates prohibited. Animals can be kept fully indoors or on feedlots with a minimum space allowance.
Level 2Indoor environmental enrichment required.
Level 3Outdoor access required but not pasture.
Level 4Access to pasture required.
Level 5Feedlots prohibited.
Level 5+Animals must spend entire lives on one farm. Off-site transport prohibited.

Other Certifications

American Humane Certified™

American Humane Certified™
Not to be confused with Certified Humane. Access to outdoors not required for birds, beef cattle or pigs. More space required than in conventional farms, but less than in other animal welfare certifications. Cages are allowed though some enrichment is required. Standards extend to breeding animalstransport and slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors. However, only 85% of the non-essential standards must be met to pass inspection. 

American Grassfed Association®

American Grassfed Association®
Ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) have continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100% grasses (no feedlots). Cage confinement, hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics prohibited. Standards do not extend to breeding animals, transport or slaughter. Compliance verified by auditors. 

USDA Organic

USDA Organic
Claims to require outdoor access, but space, duration and quality not defined and widely variable. (For example, screened-in porches on hard flooring are allowed for egg-laying hens.) Hormones are prohibited. Antibiotics prohibited beyond first day of life. Minimum indoor space, handling, transport and slaughter not addressed. Compliance verified by auditors. 

Food Alliance

Food Alliance Certified
Prohibits cages, crates and certain physical alterations. There are four levels of standards, ranging from conventional industry practices to higher-welfare pasture systems, but no indication of level on the label. Compliance verified by auditors. However, only 75% of standards need to be met in order to pass the audit. 

Further Resources

Label Guides

Printable Label Guide [PDF/JPG]
Español [PDF/JPG]

Higher Welfare Brand List

ShopKind Helpline

Supermarket and Restaurant Request Letter

Egg Comparison Guide