What do Animal Certification Labels Mean?

Confusion reigns supreme when it comes to animal food labels. While some labels are meaningful and backed by law and science, others are merely marketing ploys. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, there exist six key ‘certified labels’ that have defined standards backed by third-party audits. In other words, these are the 6 labels that consumers can trust to actually mean something, although these standards are not necessarily ‘complete’ and we make no argument that any one standard is better than any other. Additionally, these standards can vary greatly amongst species, geographic locations, and laws are always in flux, therefore the purpose of this article should be considered more of an introductory source on the matter of animal food labels rather than an exhaustive explanation. If you’d like to dive in, there are hundreds of pages of standards and specific measurements on the individual websites of the label conveyors discussed in this post.

American Grassfed Certified 

Administered by the American Grassfed Association, this label covers dairy, beef, lamb, and goat products. For an animal product to be sold with this label, the animal must have lived with constant access to pasture and its diet must have been 100% consumed through foraging or grazing with absolutely no refined grains. Additionally, the administration of either hormones or antibiotics is prohibited. Strict records must be kept of all animals, documenting breed, owner, a unique identification number, and medical history. Genetically engineered or cloned animals are not eligible to be American Grassfed Certified.

American Humane Certified  

Administered by the American Humane Association, this label covers dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, bison, lamb, goat, and pork.  The standards to achieve this label developed out of the AHA’s Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, which necessitate that an animal should be healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to behave naturally, and free from pain, fear, or unnecessary distress. Each species has their own unique set of standards as opposed to just blanket requirements and are applied in the breeding of animals, transportation of animals, and at slaughter. Farms must pass an evaluation that measures over 200 factors in order to use the American Humane Certified label on packaging.

Certified Humane 

Administered by Humane Farm Animal Care, the Certified Humane label applies to farm animals, from birth through slaughter. The standards invoked through the use of this label apply to dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, lamb, goat, and pork. Cages, crates, and tie stalls are prohibited and animals must be able to behave naturally, meaning that chickens must be able to flap their wings and pigs must have enough room to move and root. However, access to open-air is not mandatory. Animal by-products, antibiotics, and hormones are prohibited in feed although feedlots for cattle are allowed. All standards can be found on the certifiedhumane.org website and cover food/water, buildings, air quality, yard/space allowances and quality, lighting, reproductive conditions, handling/loading, equipment, health care, transportation, and slaughter.

Certified Organic 

Standards applying to the Certified Organic label are regulated by the National Organic Program, a branch of the USDA, and apply to all animals. Standards cover access to outdoor spaces, access to pasture, fresh air and sunlight, and freedom to move around. The USDA Certified Organic label does not address weaning, physical alterations such as removal of horns or clipping tails, handling, transport, or slaughter. For a livestock product to earn the certified organic label, producers must supply the animal with 100% organic food sources, the animal must have access to the outdoors, and must not have been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. The USDA Certified Organic label also applies to crops and agriculture and this will be covered in a future post.

Food Alliance Certified  

The Food Alliance Certified label and efforts that go into it “are dedicated to continual improvement of social, environmental, and economic performance.” This label intends to build upon the USDA Certified Organic label by focusing on more than inputs and taking a more holistic look at agricultural processes and procedures in order to promote positive social and environmental results. The label applies to crop producers, livestock producers, shellfish farms, nursery/greenhouse operations, and handling operations. Producers attempting to achieve the Food Alliance Certified label are measured across multiple ‘healthy and humane care for livestock’ criteria, including animal nutrition (food, water, medical treatment), animal health (legal requirements and records), facilities (cleanliness of, safety of, tagging procedures, living conditions), transportation (truck conditions, temperatures, air flow, space), handling (use of prods not allowed, natural behavior promoted, actions to correct undue stress, condition of handling facilities), and slaughter. Producers are scored on all of these criteria and must score 75% or higher across all categories to use the label.

Global Animal Partnership 

The Global Animal Partnership conveys their label on a sliding scale from Step 1 through Step 5+. Step 1 requirements can be considered the minimum animal living conditions to receive the label and Step 5+ requirements as the pinnacle. The standards apply to animal products derived from cattle, chicken, turkey, lamb, pig, goats, bison, and eggs. Each species has over 100 corresponding standards, measured by a third-party audit to determine where a producer scores on the scale . Each farm must be audited every 15 months and the Global Animal Partnership has certified over 3400 farms and ranches since their inception in 2008. They define animal welfare as the combination of health & productivity (measured by food and water quality, shelter, and disease/injury prevention), natural living (whether or not animals are free to engage in their natural behaviors, inside and outside), and emotional well being (encouraging healthy behaviors and minimizing fear, stress, and pain). Transforming these ideas of animal welfare into more than 100 measurable standards per species lead to the 5-Step system, with each of the labels signifying:

  1. Step 1: no cages, crates, or crowding
  2. Step 2: enriched environment
  3. Step 3: enhanced outdoor access
  4. Step 4: pasture centered
  5. Step 5: animal centered, no physical alterations
  6. Step 5+: animal centered, entire life on same farm

Whole Foods Market and the Global Animal Partnership have worked closely together on the development of the label, its standards, and its promotion.

Animal Welfare Approved by AGW 

A Greener World (AGW) is a non-profit that operates a suite of labels  including “Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW,” “Certified Grassfed by AGW,” “Certified non-gmo by AGW,” and “Certified Organic byAGW.” The “Certified Animal Welfare Approved” label, the most rigorous of the suite, ensures that animals live on pasture or range their whole lives using high-welfare farming practices. These practices regulate production, transport, and slaughter. Through this program, farms are audited at least once a year, free of charge to the farmers, leading to an “unrivaled level of integrity and consumer trust in the Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW logo.”  

The standards cover all major farmed livestock and poultry and are regularly reviewed and updated by scientists, vets, researchers, and farmers. The foundation of the standards lies in promoting the natural behavior of farmed animals, leading to physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A Greener World maintains a robust, easy-to-navigate website for further reading.

Animal food labels and what they signify can be important consumer tools in making educated and humane purchases of animal products. We encourage you to become more involved and engaged with your purchase of animal products by further researching these six labels and deciding for yourself which are the most significant. In part two of our article on labels, we will dive into some of the more misleading claims today, including terms such as ‘cage free’, ‘free roaming,’ and ‘sustainably farmed’. Stay tuned!

Sources: Animal Welfare Institute, American Grassfed Association, American Humane, Humane Farm Animal Care, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Alliance, and Global Animal Partnership