The Real Meaning Behind “Humane” Meat Labels

If you’re one of many animal welfare conscious shoppers, you probably try your best to buy meat from responsible sources. But you probably feel a little overwhelmed by the number of marketing claims in meat packaging. Should you buy the “humanely raised” chicken? Or should you go with the “stress free” chicken? Shouldn’t “humanely raised” chicken be “stress free?” This post will answer those questions for you.

I’ve compiled a list of the most common terms and labels with a summary of the meaning behind it. Unfortunately, not many are credible. But we do have some hope.

Some meat labels are nothing more than marketing claims

Let’s start with terms that mean absolutely nothing because they have no legal definition from the USDA. Basically, these claims are only used for marketing. There is a possibility that the claim may be truthful, but the only way to confirm is by visiting the producer. Neither the USDA or an independent third party (more on this later) audit the producer to verify if these claims are true.

  • Cage Free
  • Crate Free
  • Grain-fed
  • Grass-fed – May be verified by a third party. More on this later in the post.
  • Grass Finished
  • Humane / Humanely Raised / High Welfare
  • Naturally Raised
  • Stress Free Environment
  • Vegetarian Fed

There are many more terms that mean absolutely nothing and are only used for marketing. If you’d like a comprehensive list I recommended you download the Animal Welfare Approved Food Labels Exposed app for Apple or Android devices. More on AWA later in the post.

FYI, the terms Grass-fed and Naturally Raised had a legal definition up until January of 2016, when the Agricultural Marketing System (AMS) decided that they don’t have the authority to evaluate if these claims are truthful. AMS is a branch of the USDA.

Meat labels that are defined by the USDA, but are misleading

Now, let’s move on to terms that are actually defined by the USDA, but they probably don’t mean what you think. These terms are meant to sound “humane” but the USDA definitions are either not specific enough or don’t carry any welfare requirements. I don’t think that the USDA deliberately coined these terms to make them sound humane. But producers use these terms in a deceitful manner and the USDA does nothing about it.

Free Range / Free Roaming:Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This sounds nice, but unfortunately things like length of time outside, the size of the outdoor space, and the type of outdoor space (pasture or dirt) are not clearly defined. There are no guarantees that other welfare standards are in place.

Fresh: “Whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes).” It may be just me, but I thought that this term was referencing the animals diet. But as you see this has nothing to do with what the animal is fed. So, the chicken could be fed animal by-product and still be considered fresh as long as temperature is never below 26 °F. Obviously, this term is referring to raw poultry.

Natural: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).” The keyword here is processed. This term refers only to how meat is processed after slaughter, not to how the animal is raised.

You can read other USDA definitions here.

USDA seals

Up until I wrote this post I would’ve trusted anything with a USDA seal. After doing this research I’ve found that the USDA does not have the consumer or animals at heart. It seems like they’re mostly interested in protecting the big factory farms. Honestly, the FTC blogger disclosure policies are tougher!

USDA Organic


People often think that organic equals humane, and I understand why. If an animal is not injected with hormones, steroids, or antibiotics then they must be treated ethically, right? Unfortunately, no. Although the organic claim must be verified by the USDA, there are no other animal welfare standards that must be met by the producer. The USDA organic label is only a measure of sustainability.

USDA Process Verified


The USDA Process Verified seal is basically a gold star for producers that set their own rules and then implement them. This is one of the most useless and misleading labels out there. The most straight forward, yet perfectly sarcastic explanation of this seal came from One Green Planet:

A meat producer can define what they think is appropriate treatment and label their product as Humanely Raised and Handled. They can then elect to have the USDA come in and verify that they’re, in fact, acting in accordance with their own definition of what’s humane and the USDA will award them with a verification that they’re, basically, doing whatever they want.

If the stupidity of this seal is not clear enough, then let me try to help:

  • Let’s say that a producer has a “Humanely Raised” label on their beef packaging, but they want to bring it up a notch to gain credibility, aka, trick you into buying their product.
  • Since there is no legal definition for the term “Humanely Raised,” the producer has the freedom to define “Humanely Raised” however it wants.
  • The producer then submits a request to the USDA to visit them and verify that the cows are indeed “Humanely Raised.”
  • The USDA, via a third party auditor, will visit the producer to confirm that the cows are “Humanely Raised” in accordance to the producers own definition of “Humanely Raised.”
  • A USDA Process Verified seal is issued to the producer.

Since humanely raised is not legally defined, then we don’t really know the degree of humane to which the animals are living (by the way, there shouldn’t be any degrees to the word humane). Maybe the animals have pasture access and adequate space, but who knows how the factory workers are treating them?

“Humanely Raised” is used here as an example; the same process would apply if the producer uses any marketing terms that are not defined by the USDA, like grass-fed.

Independent certifications by third parties

These are independent organizations that are actually looking out for farm animals. These organizations have developed a comprehensive set of animal welfare inspired standards and procedures that members must follow in order to carry the certification. Producers are audited by the organization itself or by an auditing agency to ensure that all standards and procedures are met.

If you buy meat with any of these labels you can be assured that you’re buying from a humane source, although some more than others. But (there’s always a but with good things) certified meat products are hard to find. These organizations only work with family farms whose products are mostly available through specialty stores like Whole Foods. Small selections are available at some larger chains.

Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved Logo

AWA is known as the “gold standard” among farm certifications. It has the strictest policies and standards in the US in regards to animal welfare. AWA is the only certification that requires pasture access for all animals, and is 1 of 2 certifications that addresses the animal’s entire life, from birth to slaughter.

Farmers who seek AWA certification are not allowed to raise some animals of a given species under AWA standards and others in a conventional method. When buying an AWA certified product, you have the assurance that you are supporting a truly responsible farm.

Certified Humane


Certified Humane is the only other certification that addresses an animal’s entire life cycle, from birth to slaughter. Their standards do not require pasture access for all animals as AWA does, but they do define space requirements for each species. The use of feedlots is allowed for cattle, and chickens may be housed indoors. However, animals must have sufficient space to do what comes naturally to them.

Find a grocer that carries Certified Humane products here.

Global Animal Partnership


GAP is a program that puts animal welfare standards on a rating system of step 1 to step 5+, 1 being the loosest and 5+ being the strictest. They work with family farms, assisting and auditing them as they climb up the ladder from step 1 to step 5+. Below is an image summarizing the focus of each step, although the specifics vary by species.


The problem with this certification is that even a step 1 producer is awarded the GAP label, and step 1 mostly addresses space requirements. Even though the label does say the step number, how many consumers actually know what this means? Most people would be happy to buy a GAP product and wouldn’t think twice about what the step means.

As you can see, physical alterations are allowed in steps 1-4, and most welfare conscious consumers would not take kindly to this. Therefore, I think it is misleading to award the GAP label to producers that are low in the rating scale. If the goal is to help producers reach step 5+, the label should be awarded only after step 5+ is reached.

GAP certified products are available through Whole Foods.

Grass-fed certifications by third parties

It’s important to note that grass-fed doesn’t always equal humane treatment. Grass-fed is only a dietary standard. Organizations that issue grass-fed certifications usually do not have extensive animal welfare standards requirements.

And again, (sorry for repeating myself), the term grass-fed means nothing unless it’s accompanied by a third party certification. The claim may be truthful, but if the producer is not audited then how do we know?

Certified Grassfed by AGW


This certification is part of AWA (mentioned a few scrolls up). Therefore, in order to carry the label, farmers must also be certified by AWA. This means that the animals are not only grass-fed, but they also live a humane life.

You can read Grassfed by AGW standards here.

American Grassfed Association


AGA standards require animals be born, raised, and finished on open grass pastures. The use of antibiotics and hormones are prohibited. Animals must have access to pasture at all times and be able to fulfill natural behaviors. Unfortunately, there are no other welfare requirements or slaughter standards in place.

USDA Grass Fed Program for Small and Very Small Producers

In the beginning of the post I mentioned that AMS will no longer verify the grass-fed marketing claim. However, they left it in place for Small and Very Small (SVS) producers. The USDA defines an SVS producer as a producer that markets 49 cattle or less each year or lambs produced from 99 ewes or less. A ewe is a female sheep.

To be certified under this program, the USDA requires that animals be fed only grass and forage, and have continuous access to pasture. Grain and grain by-product feeds are not permitted. The certification does not carry any other welfare requirements.

I’m a vegetarian so obviously I don’t buy meat, but if I did I would look for AWA and Certified Humane products. I’d be a little wary of GAP, and probably only buy from producers that are in step 5 or 5+.

I also recommend you to download the AWA Food Labels Exposed app for Apple or Android. This will save you time and confusion at the grocery store.

Out of curiosity, do any of you actively look for these third party certifications when you buy meat?

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2 Responses
  • setman85
    November 28, 2017

    This article has good intentions but a key flaw.
    There is no “humane” way to kill a living creature. The definition of humane is “showing compassion”. How do you show compassion and kill at the same time?

    We must reject these misleading marketing tactics.

    • Alina Zagitova
      February 7, 2018

      I think talks like this is very dumb. Of course those people who are really commited to doing no harm to animals won’t eat meat, no matter if its label says “humanely killed” or not.
      But so far VAST MAJORITY of people are not vegans, vegetarians and will not become in their life time. So animals will be slaughtered for meat in huge amounts anyway.
      And vast majority of meat eaters don’t give a fuck about how these animals were raised and killed , and will keep eating them even if they would be cooked alive in boiling water.
      But for an animal there is an immeasurable difference between being killed torturously and being killed humanely. They don’t have a chance of NOT BEING KILLED now. But they can suffer horribly before their death and can have a quite quality life and quick, less painful death. Think about it, how would YOU prefer to be killed (if You had no chance of staying alive) – humanely or not. And if would be this word so meaningless for You if it was about Your own way of dying. And if You would be grateful to some idiots who urge to boycott humane killing because its “not really humane” and as a result You would have to die in horrible long suffering.
      Yes, those who really think that slaughter can be humane are hypocrites.
      But those who say that there is no difference between”humane slaughter” and not giving a fuck about what animals feel are hypocrites too.