What These 6 Food Label Terms Actually Mean

What’s a woman gotta do to eat ethically? A lot, actually. Maybe you’re a serious animal welfare advocate or maybe you just want to be a responsible consumer. Either way, you probably don’t have hours to spend scouring supermarket aisles and examining the fine print on every product. When it comes to ethical brands, we often end up relying on logos and commercials, but those can be deceptive and misleading. To simplify things, we’ve investigated what you need to know about food labels to become a truly conscious food shopper.

First off, there are a lot of terms you’ll see out there, and it’s important to break down which ones actually mean what because it’s not always so obvious. As per the Humane Society, here’s a quick refresher:

Organic: Animals have their own bedding material along with access to the outdoors. Hormones and antibiotics are also banned under these standards.

Cage-free: Chickens weren’t cooped up in a tiny, confined cage as they laid their eggs.

Free-range: Animals have access to the outdoor pasture.

Hormone-free: Animals did not receive any supplements that increased their natural growth and production.

Grass-Fed: Animals have constant access to the outdoors, where they graze on grass and forage rather than feed on grains.

No tail-docking: Prohibits farmers from removing the tails of their animals.

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Seems straightforward, right? Well, not exactly. When you see those little stickers on the packaging of meats and eggs, it’s important to know that in reality, they have absolutely no set implications, especially when it comes to animal welfare. For instance, if a certain brand of meat or eggs is labeled “organic,” outdoor space is required for the animal, but the quality of and total space designated to the animal’s outdoor access isn’t regulated. Hormones are prohibited, but other painful surgeries are, in fact, allowed. So, the organic-certified company technically met the required USDA standards regarding proper animal treatment, but the standards may not be as rigorous or truly “humane” as those held by other groups.

When it comes to animal welfare, as The New York Times put it,humane” is a word that has no real governmental definition, and thus lacks regulation on how it can be used on a label. To different companies, describing themselves with phrases like “sustainably raised animals” or “ethical handling” can, in reality, mean entirely different things, and it is often just a marketing ploy.

When a farm gets an animal welfare certification, however, that’s a different story. There are three prominent certification brands whose seals you’re likely to find on the packaging of meat and eggs: “American Humane Certified,” “Certified Humane” and “Animal Welfare Approved.” These seals can give you more in-depth knowledge about the farm and their respective welfare practices. Each farm not only has to apply for a certain welfare certification, but also pay for the certification as well.

This all sounds logical — a company must prove that they deserve to have this designation prior to presenting themselves as ethical to consumers — but as you may have expected, there’s a catch. Each certification organization has varying standards, allowing farms to quietly pick the certification standards to which their practices already align and allowing certification brands to pick the standards to which a large number of their commercial clients meet with ease. In other words, all the companies involved have the motivation and ability to put their business interests before the well-being of animals. Yikes.

To help dispel the confusion surrounding this industry, the Times organized each group’s practices in a helpful chart, but we’ve also broken down the basics of each:

1. The American Humane Association: Access to a pasture is not required for certain periods of an animal’s life, and birds are solely kept in cramped cages. While cattle branding is prohibited, beak trimming and tail docking occur regularly and without pain relief. Piglets are taken from their mother at 21 days old. Their certified producers include store name brands such as Simply Balanced by Target, Eggland’s Best and Butterball.

2. Humane Farm Animal Care: Continuous access to pasture is not required for their animals. Beak trimming, tail docking and cattle branding are allowed under specific circumstances. No outdoor space is provided to nesting hens, but all indoor birds and pigs get adequate bedding materials and environmental enrichment. Their certified producers are found in restaurants and supermarkets and include Green Valley Organics, Nellie’s Free Range Eggs and Murray’s Chicken.

3. Animal Welfare Approved: Animals have continuous access to outdoor pasture space, where they naturally graze. Beak trimming, tail docking and cattle branding are prohibited at all times. Offers the largest minimum indoor area for cattle, pigs and birds. Piglets are taken from their mother once they are at least 42 days old. The organization also works to support small family farmers. Their certified producers are smaller and more local brands and can be found at farmer’s markets, restaurants and select grocery stores.

So, if you can digest all of that (ha), which aisle should you go to on your next grocery trip? Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, told The New York Times, “The only one we have any confidence in and think gives you value for your money is Animal Welfare Approved. The rest of them have, to greater and lesser degrees, shortcomings — and American Humane in particular has a lot of shortcomings.” Even for experts, it’s hard to find a single food that is all-around ethical, and to find brands that are completely transparent. But if you’re still determined, it’s definitely worth doing some investigating before you buy.

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