Animal Welfare Lexicon
by Tracey Narayani Glover
Deciphering the significance of food labels can be daunting, particularly when seeking to understand what they mean for animal welfare. U.S. food labeling laws are notoriously weak, resulting in vague and sometimes misleading marketing claims. Legally, there is no definition of humane, which means that industry organizations are left to define this and other terms themselves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) simply verifies that these companies comply with their own self-defined standards.
Certified organic animals and free-range birds must be allowed outdoor access, yet these standards do not define the amount, duration or quality of access required. For example, the Certified Organic label doesn’t set any space requirements for animals housed indoors, nor prohibit the use of farrowing crates or gestation stalls which can be so small that the confined animals can’t turn around or roll over.
The Cage-Free label indicates that eggs came from hens that were never confined to a cage and have had unlimited access to food, water and the freedom to roam. The reality is that most cage-free hens spend their entire lives in a shed where, due to overcrowding, they have barely more space than caged birds. Also, under all labels, it’s standard industry practice to kill the male chicks born to the egg industry. The Cage-Free label is particularly misleading when placed on anything other than egg cartons, because chickens raised for meat are never caged.
Under most of the common labels, including Certified Organic, Cage-Free and Free-Range, physical mutilations such as horn removal, tail docking, debeaking and castration are permitted, and in most cases, providing pain relief is not required during these procedures.
Animals form strong bonds with their young. In sanctuaries, pigs spend their lives with their piglets, mother cows form immediate and lifelong bonds with their calves, and chickens protect and communicate with their chicks. The routine practice of separating mothers from their young is standard under all labels.
Whether an animal is raised for meat or for other products such as dairy or eggs, most agricultural animals will eventually be slaughtered at a fraction of their natural lifespan. Animals such as dairy cows and egg-laying hens are killed when their production declines. Veal (the meat of a baby cow) is considered to be a byproduct of the dairy industry, and the USDA estimates that 2,000 calves are slaughtered each day in the U.S.
Be wary of the unregulated Humanely Raised label and the American Humane Certified label, which offer little improvement over the standard factory farming practices that many consumers abhor.
The Certified Humane label, a program of Humane Farm Animal Care, is more stringent about living conditions, requiring that all animals have space that allows for exercise and freedom of movement, prohibiting crates, cages and tethers. It also has some limitations on physical mutilations, prohibiting debeaking and requiring pain relief for some other procedures at older ages.
Under the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) label, products are ranked by a five-tiered rating system, with 1 being the least rigorous and 5 the most. GAP prohibits intensive confinement at all levels and only allows debeaking and tail docking up to its level 3 standard.
Both the Certified Humane and the GAP labels go beyond the protections of the Humane Slaughter Act, requiring the butchery of cattle, pigs and sheep to comply with certain standards developed in partnership with Temple Grandin and the North American Meat Institute.
The Animal Welfare Approved label likely offers the greatest independent protection of any label. It’s the only label to require pasture access for all animals, prohibit beak trimming of birds and tail docking of pigs, and mandate audited slaughter practices of most farmed animals.
Concerned consumers might ask if there is any humane way to kill a sentient being that doesn’t want to die. Despite the perplexing state of food labeling, it’s still possible to eat compassionately. Visit local farms and ask questions or do what many conscientious consumers around the world are doing to ensure that their food choices reflect their values—stick to a plant-based diet, thus leaving animals and their byproducts off our plates entirely.
Tracey Narayani Glover, J.D., is an animal advocate, writer, owner and chef of The Pure Vegan, and yoga and meditation teacher in Mobile, AL. Connect at ThePureVegan.com and ARCForAllBeings.org.