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.

ASPCA: the oldest animal welfare organization

The ASPCA was founded in pet-loving England and spread to the US late in the 19th century… After Americans finished killing each other over slavery in the Civil War (an early example of modern warfare with cruelty to humans and animals alike).

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. Many of its campaigns and lobbying efforts focus on cruelty before animal products show up as food at your table. 

Interested in cruelty-free products? See how these leading cosmetic brands stack up regarding animal testing.

Highlights on ASPCA’s 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. It also may contain meat super-saturated in fat because the animal never had the opportunity to move normally. 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. 

USDA Organic vs Animal Welfare Approved

Stricter standards like “USDA organic” do not address any weaning requirements; prohibit dehorning or cutting off bird beaks for tighter storage in life; address pain relief when animals are branded with a hot iron; 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. They’re only required 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


Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

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 you did not. 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. You may actually be saving money while refusing to contribute to 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