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  • Erin L. Miller


Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Labels on animal products in the U.S. are, quite frankly, a mess. After 10 years as an ethical vegetarian, I reintroduced meat into my diet nearly two years ago due to health issues and I’m still learning new things about product labels. It’s no wonder that people would rather give up meat altogether than try to navigate the complicated system of buying animal products from humane farms (on top of the sticker shock of buying said products).

I can't help but think about the farm animals depicted in children’s toys and entertainment. So many toys, books, and videos targeted to children feature happy cows, chickens, and pigs coexisting inside a big red barn. But what we’re showing our children is an outdated tableau of the American farm. The U.S. now has around 250,000 factory farms. In 2015, large-scale family farms (instead of smaller, more diversified farms) made up only 2.9% of U.S. farms but contributed 42% of total production. And the number of U.S. farms continues to decline. Many of these farms, even those not considered to be “factory farms,” often take on too many animals, crowd them inside, and don’t provide them with a natural diet.

What are ethically sourced animal products?

For the purposes of this guide, I’m only going to discuss consumable animal products (not wearable products like leather). There are several terms that all contain similar meanings: ethically sourced, humanely sourced, responsibly sourced, sustainably sourced, buying with your conscience. This will also look and mean something different for each person, depending on their own morals. For instance, I only eat animal products that carry certain certified labels or adhere to strict raising standards (as close to living in the wild as possible). This means humane treatment and a biologically appropriate diet (preferably organic). For products that require slaughtering, I prioritize companies that make the slaughtering process as quick and humane as possible. And I choose not to eat veal, lamb, or foie gras.

Ethically sourced animal products could mean you only buy from local farms. Or that the animals are provided access to fresh air for a certain amount of time every day. Or that the animals were raised in accordance to certain environmental standards (not crowding too many cows on one farm together to lessen their production of greenhouse gases; limiting use of farming equipment that uses gasoline or propane; buying locally to avoid transportation emissions). It all depends on your own line in the sand and which labels you stand by.

Misleading animal product labels

Many labels are used on packaging with the intent to portray a false sense of trust. These claims may sound good on the surface but are often not regulated or don’t carry much meaning.

Something to note: many reliable farms who treat their animals humanely use these terms. But these terms alone hold no meaning by themselves when it comes to regulations or certifications.

Free range

This means the animal is allowed to move "freely," with access to the outdoors. The animals are often provided with a small door to the outdoors but there’s no guarantee that the animals make it outdoors. They may be given space to move freely, but not necessarily space enough to move past the crowd to make it outside.

Cage free

This means the chickens were not raised in the industry-standard cage (about one square foot space or less) and were able to walk around. It doesn't guarantee that they can move freely or that they’ve spent any time outdoors.

Farm raised

Every animal is raised on a farm. This doesn’t mean anything.


Per the USDA, using the term "natural" must mean the product includes no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. The label must also explain the use of "natural.” This doesn’t guarantee that the animals are being fed a natural diet or live in a natural environment.

Hormone free / Antibiotic free

Hormones: Pigs and chickens are not allowed to be raised on hormones or steroids, so this label means nothing. If this is on beef products (meat or milk), it means that hormones have not been used during the raising of the animal.

Antibiotics: This means that the product came from an animal not treated with an antibiotic. Depending on the terminology, it may mean they haven't been treated within the past few months or for their entire lifetime.

Neither of these terms guarantee a natural diet or humane treatment.

Grass fed

Typically found on beef, this means that at some point in the animal's life, the animal was allowed to eat grass. It doesn't specify how much.


This is an unregulated term that generally means the animals were raised outside in a pasture. Because it’s unregulated, anyone can use it and it doesn’t guarantee that the animals spent their entire life on pasture.

I recently discovered a local farm that touted their “pasture-raised” dairy cows. After doing some digging, I found out that only the calves and bulls were raised on the pasture but as soon as the cows started producing milk, they were sent to an indoor stall for the rest of their lives to be milked three times a day.

Ethically raised, humanely raised

These claims are subjective and no third-party certification programs exist for these claims. Since these claims are not defined by the USDA, the label must also explain the use of the "ethically raised" or "naturally raised."


Generally speaking, this means it comes from your local area or region. Since there are no regulations on what constitutes "local," it could be anywhere within 50 miles to several states away.

Another point to make: many people conflate the term “local” to mean a small, organic, humane farm. This is not always the case. I know of a few local farms with products sold in my town’s co-op and farmer’s market that keep their animals indoors and don’t provide them with a biologically appropriate diet. Another reason to pay attention to labels!

More comprehensive breakdowns of food labels can be found at the Animal Welfare Institute and Sustainable Baby Steps.

The labels I recommend

Some things to consider when it comes to trusting a label:

  • Is the label from an independent, third-party company that provides accountability with specific standards?

  • You may need to reach out to the farm, vendor, or certification party to get answers.

  • Another alternative to a label is finding a local farm that you can visit or ask questions about their raising & handling protocols. Some small farms may not be stamped with certain certifications but still treat their animals humanely and sustainably.

  • Try to find farms that focus on permaculture. Combining “permanent” and “culture,” this is a term for agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Some examples: mobile chicken coops so the chickens don’t deplete one section of grass or forest-fed pigs to encourage healthier soil (the pigs’ hooves stimulate seed germination).

The following are the labels that I trust when buying animal products.

Beef & pork

Certified Humane® (Humane Farm Animal Care)

Animal Welfare Certified - Step 4 or above (Global Animal Partnership)

Animal Welfare Approved (A Greener World)


Certified Humane (Humane Farm Animal Care)

Animal Welfare Certified - Step 4 or above (Global Animal Partnership)

Animal Welfare Approved (A Greener World)


It’s worth noting that there are currently no humane standards for seafood (only sustainability standards), which makes this one especially tricky.

MSC Certified (Marine Stewardship Council™)

“Hook and line” or “pole and line” caught*

*While this one is technically not a certification, it's a great fishing method to prevent overfishing, by-catch, and environmental damage caused by trawls or dredges.


Certified Humane (Humane Farm Animal Care)

American Humane Certified™ (Humane Heartland)

Butter & dairy

Certified Humane (Humane Farm Animal Care)

My favorite brands & farms

These are some of my favorite names, some of which can be found at big-box and chain stores like Target or Harris Teeter.

I hope this helps you shop more consciously!


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