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Humanely Raised Meat – Better for You, Better for the World

Nowadays more of us are thinking about both the unhealthy chemicals and ingredients in the meat that we eat as well as whether the animals we consume have been humanely raised.

But it is confusing out there in the grocery aisle. What you’ll find is a lot of “greenwashing” going on, which is when manufacturers use labeling that sounds “green,” healthy, and humane, but in many cases means little in terms of both the healthy aspects of the meat or whether the animals were raised in accordance with any regulations tied to their welfare.

So what’s a consumer to do?

Experts say you need to read – and understand – labels, and be prepared to spend a little more. But they also say that it is worth it to feed more healthy meats to your family (without added antibiotics, hormones, and genetically modified organisms in the animal’s feed), as well as to support more ethical and sustainable farming practices.

And healthier means more than just the reduction or absence of harmful chemicals GMOs and antibiotics. According to the Mayo Clinic, the differences in the diets of cattle eating grass and other foraged foods, versus a diet consisting of grains such as corn (found in industrial cattle farms), can be significant. You gain many more nutrients, more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, more antioxidant vitamins, and more conjugated linoleic acid (a type of fat that’s believed to reduce heart disease and cancer risks).

Humane farming means allowing the animal to be outdoors (in fresh air, sunlight and ideally, natural grazing), not having to live in cramped or caged quarters, and allowing the animal to engage in natural behaviors. It also consists of such things as providing better disease and pain management, castration specific pain management, improved weaning practices, and even modifying activities relating to more humane slaughter.

Consumers can shop for both healthier meats as well as more humanely raised meats.

There are three sets of labeling that you need to understand. One is focused on the feed and chemicals the animal is given. The other is focused on whether or not the animal was raised humanely. The third are labels that basically mean nothing (but sound good!).

Labeling related to the feed and chemicals the animal is given (does NOT reflect how humanely the animal is treated)

  • Natural: Refers to the processing of the meat after slaughter only. Indicates that no artificial coloring or flavorings, chemical preservatives, artificial or synthetic ingredients have been added. This label doesn’t mean much and yet is widely used. It has no relevance to how the animal was raised.
  • Naturally-raised: Intended to indicate that no antibiotics, no growth hormones, and no feed containing animal by-products have been used. Growth hormones and antibiotics are often given to animals to promote rapid growth; and researchers are concerned that antibiotics used in our meat may increase the overall resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. The label has no relevance to how the animal was raised.
  • Antibiotic-free/No added hormones: Same as naturally-raised
  • Organic (usually seen as “USDA Certified Organic”): This label actually has a clear, USDA definition. But it is still not focused on animal welfare, only chemicals and feed. It does require that animals have some access to the outdoors, but without any specific requirement as to what that means. Animals can also be exposed to painful surgeries and other non-humane practices.Organic meat and poultry can’t be treated with hormones or antibiotics, and animals must be fed only organically grown feed (no GMOs) which could include grain. This means that people who consume organic meats aren’t exposed to these chemicals either. Certified means the farm goes through an audit each year and follows federal organic standards.
  • Grass-fed: This designation means the animals have eaten a diet of natural grass, hay, and other things they can forage. They have not been given grain, soy or corn. But this designation doesn’t mean they can’t be given antibiotics, nor does it mean they can’t be exposed to painful surgery and other inhumane handling And even though grass-fed sounds as though they are on beautiful green hills, grass-fed does not mean they can’t also be kept it tight quarters or even indoors at times. Grass-fed farm practices are also much more sustainable. A grain-fed cow must eat eight pounds of grain to yield one pound of meat. Grass-fed animals are typically grazing. 

What’s so great about grass-feeding? It really means animals are eating the natural food that it is supposed to eat, versus grain. Grains cause an acidic environment in the animal’s stomach, often leading to digestive issues or the need for antibiotics. Grass-fed animals are also more often found on pasture (although not always), allowing them to engage in natural behaviors with other animals of their kind. When animals are grass-fed, the people who consume them are also not getting the grains.

A note of warning: some farms feed animals grain the last few months of their lives (called, grain-finishing), and still call the animal grass-fed. So if you want 100% grass-fed, look for the AGA or AWA grass-fed certification label on your meat package.

Labeling that has to do with animals being humanely raised

  • Free-range: Animals get to go outside, but not necessarily in a pasture. Some may simply be let outside onto dirt or even concrete. There are no other restrictions relating to their care. Animals may still be fed supplemental grains. Poultry may be given more access to fresh air and roaming space, and birds can eat the seeds, bugs, worms, and vegetation they evolved to eat. But definitions of “free-range” vary dramatically, with poultry and animals being kept in crowded indoor conditions at times.
  • Pasture-raised: Animals are allowed to be outdoors the bulk of their lives. Animals raised out of doors in sunlight and fresh air, and not in tight quarters, get ill less often. Animals eat more natural feed while grazing. Some animals may still be fed supplemental grains, especially in winter months. But pasture-raised animals typically are not fed supplement byproducts with their feed (such as animal blood, chicken manure, plate waste from restaurants, and other things that industrial farms may add to bolster the protein content of the feed). Not a regulated definition.
  • Humane certification: This is the best way to ensure you are purchasing meat that has been humanely raised. Requirements are extensively documented and cover details ranging from the animal’s nutrition, living environment, calves weaning and management, health monitoring (including everything from parasite control to caring for the animal’s feet), transportation protocol, pain management (usually due to castration and dehorning) and even rules relating to more humane slaughtering. Farms are audited each year to ensure compliance.

There are four main Humane Certifications that are easy to identify by logos on the meat’s packaging. Visit their websites for additional information as well as what logo to look for. The four are:

  • Animal Welfare Approved: Highest standard, also the hardest to find in your grocery store. Animals have access to the outdoors and are not caged. They are able to engage in natural behaviors. No antibiotics, no hormones.
  • Global Animal Partnership: Started by (and available at) Whole Foods as a program for more ethical treatment of farm raised animals. It is a five-step animal welfare rating program meant to help farms slowly become more humane over time. Step 1 means no cages are allowed. Step 2 means environmental enrichment is required for animals housed indoors. Step 3 means animals must be living outdoors. Step 4 means pasture-based living. And Step 5 means the animal is not transported elsewhere (lives at one home for its life), and is given no hormones or antibiotics.
  • Certified HumaneAnimals are kept outdoors allowing exercise and freedom (and pigs and poultry, which are allowed to be kept indoors, have strict rules to prevent overcrowding). Hormones and antibiotics are prohibited, and pain relief must be provided for castration and dehorning.
  • American Humane Certified: Access to outdoors not required, but more space required than in conventional farms. There are also rules for transport, breeding, and slaughter.

Labeling that sounds good but means little.

  • Humanely-raised: Means absolutely nothing. There is no common definition for this, nor government regulation.
  • Farm Fresh: Means absolutely nothing as factory farms, where animals may never be outside or even touch the land, are farms too!
  • Local or locally raised: This has nothing to do with chemical use, type of feed or how the animal was raised. It usually refers to the meat being from the state or region where it is being sold (typically 100-250 miles radius).

The best thing you can do if you can afford it is to go with the higher welfare designations of free-range, pasture-raised or humane certified. Certified organic and grass-fed are also healthier options for your family.

Another thing you can do is to waste less meat. Americans waste a lot of food, with statistics between 25% to 40%. This is not sustainable. There is an environmental cost to making that food and a further environmental cost to allow meat to rot away in landfills generating methane gas emissions. So buy healthier and more humane meats, Just buy less of it for a given meal so it isn’t wasted.

Diane Blum is a freelance writer. Please visit her at or at

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