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Deciphering “Humane” Labels & Loopholes

There is now a large body of scientific research that demonstrates unequivocally that we do not need meat, milk or eggs (or any animal products) in order to thrive.  What does this mean for humane labeling? The very existence of terms like “free range,” “cage-free,” and “humane certified” attests to society’s growing concern for the welfare of animals raised for food. But any time consumers of meat, eggs or dairy advocate for “humane” treatment of farm animals, they confront an unavoidable paradox: the movement to treat farm animals better is based on the idea that it is wrong to subject them to unnecessary harm, yet, killing animals we do not need to eat constitutes the ultimate act of unnecessary harm. When we have plentiful access to plant-based food options, and a choice between sparing life or taking it–there is nothing remotely humane about rejecting compassion and choosing violence and death for others just because we like the taste of their flesh, and they cannot fight back. No matter what the label says, there is nothing humane about harming and killing animals for pleasure.

Organic, Free Range and “Happy” Dairy Cows

There is no such thing as a happy dairy cow. All milk production depends on the use and abuse of reproductive systems that do not belong to us, and on the cruel sabotaging of motherhood. On all dairy farms, organic, small, or free-range, calves are traumatically separated from their mothers, usually within a few hours or days of birth. This is because, like all mammals, cows only produce milk to feed their young. If they don’t have babies to feed, they don’t make milk. Humans are able to consume all the milk and dairy products they want (but don’t need) only by keeping cows forcibly pregnant and lactating, then tearing away the calves for whom the milk is intended. Male calves are cruelly confined in crates or stalls and slaughtered for veal, and females calves are removed from their mothers and fed milk replacer, soon to be impregnated themselves and forced to endure the same devastating cycle of repeated birth and loss. After a few years of constant milking, dairy cows are slaughtered when their milk production declines, at only a fraction of their life span.

 Cows, Pigs, Sheep and Goats 

Even when “free-range” or “grass-fed” cows, sheep, and pigs are allowed to live outdoors, they are still commonly subjected to excruciating mutilations without painkiller or anesthetic. These include: castration, branding, dehorning, tail-docking, ear-notching or tagging, and tooth-grinding. Once they reach slaughter weight, they are prodded onto transport trucks and most of them travel, terrified and stressed, through all temperature extremes, denied food and water for up to 36 hours. Each year, millions of animals in the U.S. do not survive these grueling trips. Those cows, sheep, and pigs who make it to slaughter are still killed in the same violent ways as factory-farmed animals: long bolts are shot into their heads in order to render them unconscious before throat-slitting, but many animals are not properly stunned due to careless handling. The animals are then shackled by one leg and hung upside down from chains. Their throats are slit and though they are meant to die first from fatal blood loss, many are still conscious, groaning and kicking as dismemberment begins.

Free range: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “free-range” beef, pork, and other non-poultry products are loosely defined as coming from animals who ate grass and spent time at pasture. No other criteria-such as the size of the range or the amount of space given to each animal-are required before beef, lamb, and pork can be called “free-range.” “Free-range” and “free-roaming” facilities are rarely inspected or verified to be in compliance with these two criteria. The USDA relies upon “producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.”

Grass-Fed: Ruminant animals are fed a diet solely comprised of grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed before they are weaned. These animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as grazing. Excruciating mutilations without any pain relief are permitted, including dehorning, disbudding, castration, ear-tagging or notching, and tail-docking.  Producers must merely submit in writing to the USDA that they follow their animal production claims in order to receive approval for this label.

Certified Organic: The animals must be allowed outdoor access, with ruminants—cows, sheep and goats—given access to pasture, but the amount, duration and quality of outdoor access is undefined. Animals must be provided with bedding materials. Though the use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited, painful mutilations without anesthesia or painkiller are permitted.

Animal Welfare Approved: Animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in natural behavior. No cages or crates may be used to confine the animals, and growth hormones and antibiotics are disallowed. Certain painful mutilations, such as beak-cutting of egg-laying hens, are prohibited, while others, such as castration without painkiller, are permitted. Compliance is verified through auditing by the labeling program.

Certified Humane: The animals must be kept in conditions that allow for exercise and freedom of movement. Crates, cages and tethers are prohibited. It is not required that “certified humane” pigs have any access to the outdoors, though loosely defined “access” is required for other livestock species. Stocking densities are specified to prevent the overcrowding of animals. All animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. Pain relief must be used for physical alterations (castration and disbudding) for cattle, but for other mammals, mutilations without anesthesia or painkiller are permitted and performed. Poultry may also have parts of their beaks removed without painkiller.

Chickens and Turkeys for Meat

Free-Range: All that is required for free-range labeling of chickens and turkeys raised for meat is that the birds have “access” to the outdoors for an unspecified amount of time. 20,000 birds may be crammed inside a facility with a single exit the size of a cat door, or the door may be open for only five minutes, and the facility would still qualify as “free-range.”  Conditions on these farms are so crowded and miserable that most birds are either not even aware there is a small opening (if and when it is opened), or they are too ill or weak to move that far.  No other criteria, such as environmental quality, number of birds, or space per bird, are included in the term “free-range.” Painful debeaking is permitted.  There is no third-party auditing.

Cage Free: meaningless and intentionally misleading.  The term “cage free” is only relevant for eggs and egg-laying hens. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat in the U.S. are not, and never have been, raised in cages. The Cage Free label on chicken or turkey packages serves no other purpose than to capitalize on the popularity of the ‘cage free’ label for eggs and profit from consumers’ ignorance of industry rearing methods for meat birds. Read more here.

Humanely Raised: meaningless and intentionally misleading. This is a label of the National Chicken Council, a private industry group and not a welfare verifier. Chickens raised for marketing under the ‘Humanely Raised’ label can be confined in windowless sheds with thousands of other birds and less than one square foot of space per bird. These standards do not require any access to fresh air or sunlight. Read more here.

Process Verified: meaningless and intentionally misleading. USDA currently gives “humanely raised” certification to companies enrolled in its Process Verified Program (PVP). Use of the Process Verified label on chicken producers’ meat and egg packages makes it appear that the USDA has certified the company’s use of federally defined “humane” animal welfare practices, but in reality, no federal definition of the term “humane” exists.  In fact, producers decide independently what practices they will call “humane,” and the USDA merely verifies that the company follows its own arbitrary standards. Under such a scheme, industrial producers running large scale confinement operations can simply submit their current practices as “humane,” and without even marginally improving animal welfare conditions, can display the USDA’s “Process Verified” and “humanely raised” packaging seals. Read more here and here.

United Egg Producer Certified:
meaningless. UEP birds are raised indoors in miserable intensive confinement sheds and endure all of the abuse, disease, injury, stress and dejection associated with these operations. Each chicken is “guaranteed” 67 square-inches of cage space; by comparison, a typical 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paperis 93.5 square-inches).

Please follow these links to find out more about chickens and turkeys raised for meat.

Egg-Laying Hens 

*Regardless of higher welfare standards for some of the following labeling programs, it’s important to remember that virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all of the male chicks shortly after they are born. Most backyard chicks also come from hatcheries that kill the males. Male chicks are of no use to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs, and haven’t been bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens raised for meat. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding them up alive. Over 250 million male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.

Additionally, all commercial egg-laying hens are cruelly slaughtered at a fraction of their natural lifespan, once their egg production rates decline and they are no longer considered useful.  Most cage-free and free-range egg-laying hens on commercial farms are also debeaked. While some labels may provide better living conditions, there is nothing humane about mutilating and killing animals we don’t need to eat.

Cage-free: All this means is that the chickens are not in cages. They  are usually kept in a windowless barn or warehouse-type facility with the birds crowded on the floor and on stacked wire platforms, with no access to the outdoors. Debeaking is routine and permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Free-range: All that is required for eggs to be labeled “free range” is that hens have “access” to the outdoors for an unspecified amount of time. 20,000 birds may be crammed inside a facility with a single exit the size of a cat door, or the door may be open for only five minutes, and the facility would still qualify as “free-range.”  Conditions on these farms are so crowded and miserable that most hens are either not even aware there is a small opening (if and when it is opened), or they are too ill or weak to move that far.  No other criteria, such as environmental quality, number of birds, or space per bird, are included in the term “free-range.” Debeaking and forced-molting through food withdrawal are routine and permitted practices.There is no third-party auditing.

Certified Organic: The birds are not in cages and are reared indoors, in barns or warehouses. Birds must have “access” to the outdoors, but as with “free-range,” the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is left deliberately undefined. The birds are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. To learn more about abuse of “certified organic” hens, click here.

Process Verified: scam. Egg producers certified by the PVP as “humane” are no different from the non-certified commercial producers. They allow for intensive indoor confinement, overcrowding of egg-laying hens and meat chickens; ammonia levels known to cause significant respiratory, skin, and eye disease in chickens; the painful debeaking of young chicks; and other inhumane conventional practices. Please read more about this fraudulent USDA labeling scheme here, and read about abuse of birds from Process Verified producers here.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but painful beak-cutting without anesthetic is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

American Humane Certified: misleading, not humane. This label allows both cage confinement and cage-free systems. Caged hens have only as much space as a legal-sized sheet of paper. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak-cutting mutilation is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing but welfare standards are so low this gesture is meaningless.

Free-Roaming: Also known as “free-range,” the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in “free-roaming” egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.

Food Alliance Certified: The birds are cage-free and access to outdoors or natural daylight is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Starvation-based molting is prohibited. Painful beak-cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

United Egg Producers Certified: meaningless. The overwhelming majority of U.S. egg producers qualify for UEP certification, which permits routine abuse and cruel factory farm practices. Hens laying these eggs have 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. They are confined in barren battery cages so small that they cannot perform any of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even stretching their wings. Hens live this way for 18-24 months before being slaughtered. Painful beak-cutting is allowed.