Labels & Loopholes

Understanding Labels & Loopholes

What is the difference between Certified Humane and American Humane Certified? What’s the difference between free-range and cage-free?

Unfortunately, consumers who care about animals are being misled by deceptive marketing schemes.

Producers have learned that if a label contains buzzwords such as “happy,” “free,” “humane,” or “animal welfare,” concerned customers will often buy their products (with higher prices) without actually understanding their practices.

The result is a confusing proliferation of packaging labels pertaining to farmed animal welfare. But what do these labels really mean?

To start, it’s important to know that there is no legal definition of “humane.”1

Under USDA-approved welfare labels, farms and producers decide independently what practices they will call “humane.” The USDA merely verifies that the company follows its own arbitrary standards.

Some private humane certification labels require third-party auditors to verify compliance with their standards, but even among these programs the term “humane” is not consistently defined or enforced.

Piglet restrained for scalpel castration

For example, Animal Welfare Approved does not allow debeaking, but considers castration and ear notching without pain relief “humane.”

On the other hand, American Humane Certified permits debeaking, but does not allow ear notching and requires anesthesia for castration of some animals.

Furthermore, not only do terms like “humane” and “free-range” mean different things to different producers; they also mean different things depending on the kind of animal.

For instance, while free-range beef cows must have spent some time on pasture, free-range chickens commonly spend their entire lives crammed inside windowless sheds with thousands of other birds.

1. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. Retrieved 11/5/2014 from “”

2. Consumer Reports, Greener Choices Food Safety & Sustainability Center. Retrieved 11/5/2014 from

3. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. Retrieved 11/5/2014 from “”

4. “Colostrum Feeding and Management on U.S. Dairy Operations, 1991-2007,” USDA, Feb. 2009. Retrieved 7/21/2014 from:

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