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In reply to: It is OK to eat animals that have been treated well; I only eat certified humane, pasture-raised, cage-free, free-range products

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People are becoming increasingly concerned about the welfare of animals used for food. This concern is spawned by undercover videos, social-media postings, documentary movies, and reporting by the press.

Some people hope to act on that concern by buying products that bear one of the humane-certification labels or that brandish some other designation, such as  cage freefree-rangegrass fed, or organic, thinking that such purchases cause little or no harm to the individuals whose flesh and secretions have been packaged for sale.

First, we explain why—even if specific humane claims are true—using animals for food is still not humane. Because using animals for food is still not humane, it's not necessary to show that the humane-sounding labels and certifications are misleading. But we do so anyway just so there can be no doubt. We also reveal that cruel practices are systemic to the process of using animals for food.

After the evidence is presented, it's easy to conclude that these labels have little to do with the well-being of the animals but are designed to at once assuage our guilt and compel us to spend more.

Talking Points

Animals are harmed by depriving them of their lives.

Research by cognitive ethologists and neurobiologists has confirmed that the animals we exploit for food, including fish, have desires, preferences, and emotions. They have a sense of themselves, a sense of the future, and a will to live. They have families, social communities, and natural behaviors.[1]

In these ways and others, they are like us, and what happens to them matters to them. They each have an inherent value apart from their usefulness to us. So even if humane-sounding labels were aboveboard, using animals for food is still not humane because we are depriving them of the only life they have and a life they value.

This is true no matter how the killing is done, and it is true not only for animals used for meat but also for animals used for dairy products and eggs. Those used for dairy and eggs, like those used for meat, are slaughtered very early in their lives. They are slaughtered when their reproductive systems are used up and they are no longer profitable. None of the animals we use for food are allowed to live out their lives.

Taking the life of anyone who wants to live is to harm that individual, regardless of their species. Just as we would not consider killing for food humane if it were done to dogs, cats, or humans, then by any measure of fairness and justice, it is not humane when done to other sentient beings.

Humane slaughter is an oxymoron. Humane means showing compassion or benevolence. To slaughter is to kill or butcher someone who does not want to die. Slaughter is a violent act, not an act of compassion or benevolence.

Humane-sounding labels and certifications are mostly meaningless.

Here we address the most common labels and certifications. Some labels and certifications cover some forms of abuse, and others cover different forms of abuse, but none address all forms of abuse. But even if they did, the standards are often not enforced.


The USDA standard for free-range requires only that chickens are given some access to the outdoors. There are no stipulations for the size or quality of the outdoor space, and there is no requirement that the chickens actually spend time outdoors.[2] Also, the claim does not have to be verified through inspections.[3]

So it's not surprising that investigations by Consumer Reports (and others) reveal that most chickens labeled free-range spend their lives confined inside a crowded chicken house. The free-range space itself may be nothing more than an enclosed concrete slab that the chickens never use. These individuals lack the room even to turn around, much less engage in their natural behaviors of preening, nesting, foraging, dust bathing, and perching.[3]

This has led Consumer Reports to say that free range is one of the most potentially misleading labels because of the discrepancy between what it implies and what is required to make the claim."[3]

Only one percent of eggs are from free-range hens that have the option to go outdoors, but like the other 99 percent, even those hens have likely never actually been outdoors.[4]

Jonathan Foer, in his well-researched and fact-checked book[5] Eating Animals, sums it up well in saying that "the free-range label is bullshit" and "should provide no more peace of mind than 'all-natural,' 'fresh,' or 'magical.'"[6]

Cage free

Consumer Reports advises you to “ignore cage-free claims” for chickens.[7] "'Cage-free' does not mean the chickens had access to the outdoors." It only means the chickens were not confined to a cage.[8]

Cage free chickens, like free-range chickens, may be confined not by a cage but by crowding so extreme that turning around and engaging in those previously mentioned natural behaviors of preening, nesting, foraging, dust bathing, and perching is difficult or impossible. Such extreme crowding in large metal warehouses is the norm, with each chicken allowed less than a square foot of space.[8]

Other conditions inside the warehouses add to the misery of the confined birds. To mention only one, for brevity's sake: the ammonia-laden air in the chicken houses is so noxious that the birds commonly suffer respiratory disorders, severe flesh and eye burns, and even blindness.[9]

Pasture raised

According to Consumer Reports, “government agencies have no common standard that producers have to meet to make a 'pasture raised' claim on a food label, no definition for ‘pasture,’ and no requirement for the claim to be verified through on-farm inspections.”[10]

Grass fed

In 2016 the USDA stopped regulating the grass fed label,[11] allowing producers to use the label no matter how much or little grass was used in feeding. Given that "most all beef cattle spend at least a portion of their lives on grass,"[12], the notion that the grass-fed claim confers something special is questionable.


Some have the perception that organic means humanely raised, but that is not the case. Organic farmers are free to treat their animals no better than non-organic farmers. This is because the USDA, which controls the organic label in the United States, ruled that the label does not allow "broadly prescriptive, stand-alone animal welfare regulations."[13]

Consumer Reports informs us that while there are organic standards relating to animals, they lack clarity and precision, letting producers with poor standards sell poultry and eggs.[14]

Certified Humane

Consumer Reports says that "we do not rate Certified Humane as a highly meaningful label for animal welfare, because the standards do not have certain requirements that a majority of consumers expect from a 'humanely raised' label, such as access to the outdoors."[15]

Whole Foods' Global Animal Partnership (GAP)

The Open Philanthropy Project criticized Whole Foods' Global Animal Partnership (GAP) for having weak enforcement and for providing only slight improvements over standard factory farming conditions.[16]

For example, according to Consumer Reports, "standards for slaughter do not exist at any level for chickens and there is no limit on their rate of growth."[17]

GAP doesn't even publish standards for dairy cows, arguably the most abused of any of the farmed mammals.

American Humane Certified

According to Consumer Reports, "the requirements fall short in meeting consumer expectations for a 'humane' label in many ways."[18]

United Egg Producers Certified

Consumer Reports says that while the label is verified, "it is not meaningful as an animal welfare label because certain basic conditions, such as the freedom to move, are not required."[19]

Also according to Consumer Reports, "the UEP Certified guidelines allow continuous confinement in crowded cages in dimly lit buildings without natural light and fresh air. Hens only have to be given enough space to stand upright, with a minimum space requirement of 8 by 8 inches for white laying hens kept in a cage. Producers keeping their hens in cages do not have to allow the hens to move freely, perch, dust bathe, or forage, and nest boxes are not required. While the label is verified, it is not meaningful as an animal welfare label because certain basic conditions, such as the freedom to move, are not required."[20]

USDA Process Verified

According to Consumer Reports, Process Verified claims can be written by the manufacturers themselves—and the claims do not have to be meaningful to the welfare of the animals.[21]

Here's the exact quote: "the USDA Process Verified shield means that one or more of the claims made on the label have been verified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both the claim and the standard behind the claim can be written by the company; the USDA only verifies whether the standard has been met, not whether the claim is a meaningful one. The label adds credibility to meaningful claims like 'no antibiotics, ever,' but also allows for claims with lower standards that mostly reflect the existing industry norm and add little value, such as 'raised without growth-promoting antibiotics.'”[21]

Animal Welfare Approved

On their Greener Choices website, Animal Welfare Approved is the only certification that Consumer Reports says has strong standards, yet the standards still allow for mutilations[22] and other injustices.

Also, products with this label are challenging to find. A search using their own product finder reveals that it's unlikely you will find any products with this label at a grocery store near you.[23]

Certified Sustainable Seafood

Certified Sustainable has nothing to do with the well-being of fish. Not only that, but the sustainability claim itself is suspect. In a piece titled "Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable?" NPR reports that scientists and other experts believe fisheries are being certified that should not be. In addition, fish are being incorrectly counted, rendering the claims of sustainability doubtful at best.[24]

Backyard chickens

Although backyard chickens are not associated with a certification or label like the others that we are covering here, they deserve a closer look. A considerable number of people regard the practice of keeping chickens in the backyard for food as innocuous. These backyard chickens are of the same or similar variety as those on industrial farms.

Baby chicks often die in transport. A quick search will find numerous reports of chicks being shipped alive to backyard hobbyists and dying in transport—and reports of those that make it being greatly stressed.

Backyard chickens, like those on industrial farms, have been selectively bred, which stresses their bodies. Here are just a few examples out of many:

  • Laying hens are bred to lay large eggs, which stresses their reproductive systems and causes such problems as osteoporosis, bone breakage, and uterus prolapse.[25]
  • Another stressor for laying hens is the number of their eggs, which is the result of selective breeding. A laying hen produces more than 300 eggs a year, but the jungle fowl from which they are bred lay 4 to 6 eggs in a year.[26]
  • Chickens used for meat have been bred to grow at an unnaturally fast rate and have large breasts. This selective breeding comes with serious welfare consequences: leg disorders; skeletal, developmental, and degenerative diseases; heart and lung problems; respiratory problems; and premature death.[27]
  • In the hatcheries from which backyard chicken hobbyists order baby chicks, the males are either ground alive in macerators, gassed, or smothered to death soon after they are hatched. This is because the laying hens are selectively bred for producing eggs, not meat, rendering the males useless for their intended purpose.[28]
  • Backyard hens are likely to be slaughtered when egg production wanes, preventing them from living out their natural lives. As one hobbyist euphemistically put it, "when the expenses outweigh the value, then changes have to be made."[29]

Cruelty and suffering are systemic in using animals as commodities for profit.

The abuses inflicted on farmed animals are many and often severe, and they're part of the normal operations of exploiting animals for food. These abuses include confinement, crowding, mutilation, deprivation of natural behaviors, debilitating selective breeding, cruel handling, separation from their offspring, and, of course, slaughter.

Because many of the abuses are systemic, they cannot be humanely-labeled away. To be profitable, animal agriculture depends on animals being mistreated. For any label or certification to omit all animal abuses would render the products unaffordable by all but the most affluent.

The cruelty stems in part from the attitudes that surround the commodification of animals, as exemplified by a piece in Hog Management, which recommends that farmers "forget the pig is an animal—treat him just like a machine in a factory."[30]

Here are a few specific examples of cruelty not covered earlier. These are allowed under many, if not most, labels and certifications.

  • The early separation of calves from their mothers, depriving the calves of the love and milk of their mothers and depriving the grieving cow of her nurturing instinct[31]
  • Painful debeaking of chickens, depriving them of their ability to engage in preening and foraging[32]
  • Forcing a hesitant animal to move by any methods necessary, including whipping, prodding, dragging, and forklifting (the evidence for this can be seen in numerous videos and the several firsthand accounts in the book Slaughterhouse by Gail A. Eisnitz)
  • The dehorning of cows, which one professor of animal science calls "the single most painful thing we do,"[33] done via acid, burning, sawing, or cutting with a gigantic clipper[34]
  • The clipping of teeth and tails of piglets, a painful procedure usually performed without medication and which may also result in infections, tumors, and the suppression of natural behaviors[35]

Humane-sounding labels and certifications may be best thought of as marketing.

The animal agriculture industry is aware of the growing concern for animals and know that if they appear to be uncaring, sales and profits will decline. They also know that few will examine these humane-sounding claims to see if they are true. So these labels and certifications give the appearance of being humane, assuaging the guilt of compassionate buyers.

They may also engender higher profits, because the industry also knows that concerned, kindhearted consumers are willing to pay more for products they perceive to be humanely produced.[36]

You cannot buy products made from animals that have been treated humanely.

Even if you buy into the idea that it’s OK to eat animal products as long as the animals are treated well, there is virtually no chance that the animals have, in fact, been treated well, regardless of what label is on the package. While certain labels may represent less suffering for some of the abuses, other abuses remain. The mitigation of some of the cruelties does not justify the remaining ones.

As we have shown and as exposed via Consumer Reports and other sources, the standards for these humane-sounding labels are weak and they often go unenforced.

The life of any farmed animal can only be described as one of commodified, abusive servitude ending in brutal slaughter. When viewed objectively, free from the fog of our cultural norms, their treatment and slaughter, no matter the label or certification—and by any standard of fairness and justice—cannot be considered humane.

See Also

Farm Forward's 2021 investigative report on humanewashing

Survey of US Attitudes Towards Animal Farming and Animal-Free Food October 2017


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  28. Blakemore, Erin. “Egg Producers Pledge More Humane Fate for Male Chicks.” Smithsonian, June 13, 2016.
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  30. Prescott, Matthew. “Your Pig Almost Certainly Came from a Factory Farm, No Matter What Anyone Tells You - The Washington Post,” July 15, 2014.
  31. University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. (2015, April 28). Early separation of cow and calf has long-term effects on social behavior. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 26, 2018 from
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  33. Dehorning: ‘Standard Practice’ on Dairy Farms,” ABC News, January 28, 2010,
  34. M’hamdi, Naceur, Cyrine Darej, and Rachid Bouraoui. “Animal Welfare Issues Concerning Procedures Of Calves Dehorning.” Department of Animal Sciences, National Institute of Agronomy of Tunisia and Hiher School of Agriculture of Mateur, Bizerte, Tunisia, 2013
  35. “Welfare Implications of Teeth Clipping, Tail Docking and Permanent Identification of Piglets.” American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), July 15, 2014. href=" piglets.aspx
  36. Spain, C. Victor, Daisy Freund, Heather Mohan-Gibbons, Robert G. Meadow, and Laurie Beacham. “Are They Buying It? United States Consumers’ Changing Attitudes toward More Humanely Raised Meat, Eggs, and Dairy.” Animals : An Open Access Journal from MDPI 8, no. 8 (July 25, 2018).


This article was originally authored by Greg Fuller and copyedited by Isaac Nickerson. The contents may have been edited since that time by others.