Animal Welfare Certifications: False Leads vs. Verified Labels

Lessi Arif
Jun 10 · 6 min read

Nowadays, most if not all of our packaged food is stamped with some sort of label or another. Eventually, these labels start to blur into random little pictures making broad claims that the product is gluten free, or vegetarian, or vegan, or that the meat used is certified, with no added hormones or antibiotics, or that the animals used were treated humanely, and on and on. While there are half a million labels I could discuss, I will be focusing on animal welfare certifications.

Most of us have no desire for the animal that provides us with our meat or dairy or eggs to be ruthlessly beaten or kept in atrocious living conditions. Yet, it is not always easy to tell which animal welfare labels on certain meats or other products are true. Some labels are misleading, while some of the accurate and trustworthy labels are hard to locate. Well, fear not. This article should cover the basics for you.

There are three programs that provide some of the highest welfare standards for raising farm animals: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership (GAP).

Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World (AGW) focuses on pasture-raised farms while Certified Humane covers enriched indoor and free-range/pasture-based farms. Global Animal Partnership provides certifications for cage/crate-free animals, enriched indoor and free-range/pasture-based farms.

If you would like to know what farms are notorious for their specific certifications, check out this list below:

Animal Welfare Approved:

Certified Humane:

Global Animal Partnership:

As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of labels out there, and it is not always easy to tell which are valid and which are not.

The best choices have the highest animal welfare standards, with third party auditing programs verifying farmers’ compliance:

  • Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW
  • Certified Grassfed by AGW
  • Certified Humane (for pasture-raised eggs only)
  • Global Animal Partnership (Levels 4, 5, 5+) (Images listed below)
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

The next best choices feature lower animal care standards, but still verify compliance through a second party, such as a trade association, for example, or an independent third party certification program:

  • AGA Certified Grassfed
  • American Humane Certified (pasture-raised eggs only)
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Food Alliance Certified
  • USDA Certified Organic (for dairy, eggs, chicken, goose, duck, turkey, bison, lamb, goat, and pork)
  • Global Animal Partnership (Levels 2 and 3)

Less reliable choices are not as preferential because no clear standards exist these animal welfare claims and compliance are not verified by a third party. Still, animal welfare retains some relevance for these labels:

  • Cage Free (eggs only)
  • Crate Free (pork and veal); standards not defined by USDA
  • Free Range/Pasture-Raised (eggs only)
  • Free Range/Range Grown (chicken, turkey, goose, duck)
  • Free Roaming/Pastured Fed/ Pasture Grown/Meadow Raised (beef, bison, lamb, goat, and pork)
  • Grass Fed (dairy, beef, bison, lamb, and goat)
  • No Added Hormones/No Hormones Administered (dairy, beef, lamb)
  • No Antibiotics Administered/Raised Without Antibiotics
  • Pasture Raised (chicken, turkey, goose, and duck)

Lastly, there are labels you should avoid that are meaningless or misleading with regards to animal welfare. These labels are often stamped onto the front of products solely for marketing purposes:

  • Cage Free (chicken and turkey)
  • Ethically Raised, Responsibly Raised, or Thoughtfully Raised; these standards are not defined by the USDA nor are they verified by third parties; they are often used as marketing tactics
  • Halal
  • Humanely Raised/Humanely Handled
  • Kosher
  • Natural
  • Naturally Raised
  • No Added Hormones/No Hormones Administered (eggs, chicken, turkey, goose, duck, pork, bison, and veal)
  • Omega-3 Enriched (eggs)
  • United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified
  • USDA Process Verified
  • Vegetarian Fed (now, this one is just pathetic)

Alright, we have gotten through the basics. Now it is time to delve into the policies and standards of one well-known certification program, Global Animal Partnership, and one of its compliant farms, Mary’s Free Range Chicken.

Global Animal Partnership promotes the raising of animals for consumption without the use of antibiotics, added hormones, or any other animal byproducts. Their “Animal Welfare Certified” label has six levels: Step one is the basic certification; two addresses an enriched environment for the animals; three is given to farms that provide outdoor access for their animals; four pertains to pasture-raised animals; step five is given to animal-centered farms; and a 5+ rating requires that the animal spend its entire life on a farm, exposed to the outdoors 24/7 only taking shelter if it so desires. As is evident, the higher the number, the more closely the animal’s farm environment mirrors that of its natural one.

Image for post
Image for post

For GAP, there are three components that contribute to good animal welfare: the animal’s health and ability to produce, natural living, and emotional wellbeing. Animals should be raised to be healthy and productive with good quality feed, water, and shelter. They should be free from disease, illness, and injury, and should receive treatment if sick. The farm animals need to reside in environments, be it indoors or outdoors, that enable them to express their natural behaviors healthily. Lastly, their environments should allow these animals to be inquisitive and playful, minimizing restlessness, frustration, stress, and pain.

GAP’s animal welfare standards are specifically tailored to each individual animal group, from cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and bison to chickens, turkey, and laying hens. Their Farm Animal Welfare Team is composed of research scientists with backgrounds in animal husbandry and production farming. Each member has graduate-level degrees in animal behavior and welfare, with several senior-level members possessing doctorates. GAP also partners with a Scientific Advisory Committee that ensures that their standards are based in the most recent research in animal science.

Independent, third-party certifiers are utilized by GAP to audit forms and verify farmer compliance with the established welfare standards. Appropriate certification levels are assigned to each respective farm, which in turn must be audited every 15 months in order to remain certified. Some of the independent parties used by GAP are Earth Claims, AUS-MEAT, Livestock Integrity Solutions Australasia, and Lloyd’s Register.

So, what of the farms that are GAP certified? What was their motivation behind becoming certified and their journey throughout the process?

Mary’s Free Range Chicken operates out of Pitman Farms in Sanger, California. With certified GAP products ranging from Levels 3 through 5, it processes over 500,000 chickens every week, holding around 20,000 birds on site. Non-certified ducks and turkeys are also produced and processed.

According to David Pitman in an interview with the ASPCA, the Pitman family began to focus on higher animal welfare practices due to the increasingly prominent links between animal welfare and meat quality, discomfort with the well being of conventionally raised animals, and higher consumer demand for better welfare alternatives. Additionally, Whole Foods Market, to whom Mary’s had a history of selling, required the farm to obtain the certification after GAP was launched. Without it, Mary’s would not be able to retain the partnership with Whole Foods.

Changes had to be made to Mary’s operations in order for the farm to become certified: the chickens’ environment had to be improved with extra feed, more shaded areas, and other amenities; and Mary’s had to administer more detailed and varied paperwork,

Of the 500,000 weekly processed chickens, 90% are GAP Step-3 certified with the remaining 10% at Steps 4 and 5.

The results of the GAP certification appear to be pretty rewarding, with increased sales, greater product differentiation (boy, does that fine certification come in handy for marketing!), and 10% premiums paid from Mary’s to its GAP-certified supplier farms. Additionally, a trickle-down effect is produced for animal welfare; as Mary’s expanded their operations and sources, each of their partner farms had to receive GAP certifications as well!

It can be tricky navigating the world of labels. There are plenty of deceptively alluring certifications that promise humane treatment and proper animal welfare without truly meeting these claims. Hopefully, though, this article has shown you what to avoid and has enlightened you about the most reliable certifications out there.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium