The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has the most readable guide to animal food labels on the webAnyone who is not a vegan can consider using this to better understand how the animals that form their meat and dairy products are treated by farmers, transportation workers, and butchers.

Oldest animal welfare organization

The ASPCA was founded in pet-loving England, and soon spread to the US in the second half of the 19th century.  In the American Civil War, Americans finished killing each other over slavery (in an early example of modern warfare with cruelty to humans and animals alike), and soon after founded the ASPCA in 1866. 

In a society that was still largely employed on farms, the ASPCA’s first focus was on cruelty to horses in wars, on farms, on a dinner plate, and when butchered for industrial byproducts like glue. A later focus was on preventing cruelty to domestic animals like cats and dogs. 

More recently, the ASPCA is known for monitoring the quality of shelters and the handling of stray or confined pets.  But in the 21st century, the organization has come full circle, with many of the campaigns and much of the lobbying focused on cruelty before a farm animal product shows up as food at your table. 

Highlights on their list of labels


Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

The ASPCA’s meat, eggs, and dairy label guide is divided into pages focused on dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, pork, and beefWhat stands out?  First, when a farm or company makes a claim that an animal product is “natural,” this pretty much means nothing for the animal itself.   The animal may not have access to its mother after birth, to pasture, to its normal diet, to any natural sunlight or space to move or grow naturally. It doesn’t mean much for you either. The animal may be hormone and antibiotic fed as a matter of course, and it may contain meat super-saturated in fat (because it never had the opportunity to move normally) when it arrives at your table. Steer clear of products that deceptively and exclusively claim to be natural.

American Grassfed Association” and “Grassfed” may help ruminant animals to digest their food instead of being perpetually sick, but these labels are partly about protecting humans (with leaner meat) and may be inaccurate. “Grassfed” could still permit regular feeding of synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics, and feeding in feed lots rather than on grass. 

Stricter standards like “USDA organic” do not address any weaning requirements, do not prohibit dehorning or cutting off bird beaks for tighter storage in life, do not address pain relief when animals are branded with a hot iron, do not regulate transportation and the quality or duration of rides on cattle cars to the slaughter, and generally do not provide details on animal welfare standards.  For example, cows producing “organic beef” can eat and live on feedlots for the majority of their lives — although they need to “have access” to certified organic pasture during the grazing season.

The strictest standard for farm animals appears to be “animal welfare approved” although that is a somewhat rare certification that you will not find at every store.  “Certified humane” also seems stricter than USDA organic, which is in turn at least better than some of the others…  

Solution for tighter budgets and food deserts

You may feel you don’t have the purchasing power to buy better certifications for your meat and dairy products, or you may live in a food desert where affordable, certified products are few and far between. Still, you can tell local vendors who ask you “if you found everything you wanted” that, in fact, you did not if you don’t see the strongest certifications on animal products.  Actively advocate for animals and see if fresher, higher-quality, less cruel products eventually show up with reasonable pricing and consistency in the local store.  A stronger alternative to asking for less cruel and higher quality animal products is to go vegetarian or vegan.  By doing this, you may actually be saving money (because meat and some dairy products are expensive) while refusing to contribute to all of the following sources of suffering on factory farms:

  • Cages and overcrowding.
  • Physical alterations, like teeth-clipping or tail-docking, performed without anesthetic.
  • Indoor confinement with poor air quality and unnatural light patterns.
  • Inability to engage in natural behaviors.
  • Breeding for fast growth or high yields of meat, milk and eggs that compromises animal welfare.
  • Neglect of sick and suffering animals, often due to high ratio of animals to workers.
  • Misuse of antibiotics to compensate for unsanitary conditions.
  • Rough or abusive handling by workers.

If you think the ASPCA is worthy and have some money or time to help the cause, click here.

Feature photo: Free range, grass fed, Aubrac cattle, by the author