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Alert “Wild-caught,” “organic,” “grassfed” are not as good as they sound. As Rachel Krantz, senior writer, Mercy for Animals points out, most animals have been raised on factory farms with no federal law to protect them. Most chickens (for food) are bred to grow faster and fatter than their bodies can manage; most egglaying hens are crammed into tiny cages, and most breeding cows are crated so they can't even turn around.

Help We can reduce this suffering by changing our own food choices, voting on state laws to regulate factory farms, and pressuring companies to adhere to higher animal welfare standards. Andrew Knight, a professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester, says, “…(we need to switch) to systems like free-range and organic.” Even better, we can reduce consumption of animal products, or avoid eating animals altogether.

Label Rating Systems Generally, food labels are approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it doesn't legally define most of the terms, often allowing producers to define them. Several nonprofit organizations have outlined clear requirements for each label and each farming practice. According to Knight, “They would be the ones to trust.” Three labels to look for are “GAP-Certified,” “Certified Humane,” and “Animal Welfare Approved.” These rating programs have independent auditing systems to ensure manufacturers' claims about animal welfare are implemented. “American Humane Certified” is not recommended by animal advocates. What Other Labels Mean Most familiar labels sound good but have been co-opted. For example, “cage-free” just means each bird has been given 1 to 1.5 square feet of floor space.

The space helps, but still there are poor lighting conditions, beak trimming, and no outdoor access. They can be transported for days in cramped trucks with no food or water to the slaughterhouse. For the most part, fish likely endure slow, painful deaths. At aquaculture (farm) facilities, fish are raised in tanks, ponds, or sea cages and are often injured through overcrowding. Water quality is usually poor, and disease is common. The “wildcaught” or “wild” label is not well-enforced by the FDA. A 2015 analysis by Ocean a found that almost half of the salmon sold in grocery stores and restaurants was mislabeled, e.g., farmed salmon was labeled as wild-caught. “Free-range/free-roaming” means birds must be allowed outside for at least 120 days of the year. Space and quality of the outdoor area, however, are undefined. Therefore, it's unlikely to be what we picture it to be because chickens spend all their time on pastures. If eggs are ungraded (uninspected by the USDA), producers only need to demonstrate that animals were “allowed access to the outside” to use the free-range label.

“Grass-fed” suggests access to the outdoors. In fact, it only refers to what the animals are fed, which can mean fed indoors. Sometimes, to fatten up cows before slaughter, producers still feed them grain (which is unhealthy). The label also doesn't address other issues, such as dehorning, disbudding, branding, weaning time, and transport conditions. “Pasture-raised” has no legal definition; theoretically, a company could let its cows out on the pasture only every once in a while, rendering the label appealing but meaningless. “Natural” only refers to food that is minimally processed with no artificial ingredients, but the agency doesn't conduct on-site inspections to verify (unless the product also carries an official USDA organic label). “Naturally raised” is also meaningless. “Organic” means the animal can be fed only organic grass or grain with no byproducts and cannot be treated with antibiotics or hormones. They must be allowed to graze outside for at least 120 days a year. The living conditions must include shade, shelter, an exercise area, fresh air, clean drinking water, direct sunlight, clean and dry bedding, and a suitable temperature.

Conditions must also allow for “freedom of movement and reduction of stress,” and there are actual on-site inspections to enforce this. However, the quality of these conditions can vary. For example, outdoor areas might be, as Consumer Reports points out, “tiny screened-in concrete porches for thousands of chickens.” Even in organic dairy facilities, calves can also be confined for up to six months of age. In March 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the rule which strengthened animal welfare requirements at organic farms. So while “organic” is still a somewhat meaningful label, consumers wanting to support animal welfare should look to reduce (or forgo) animal product consumption or seek reliable third-party certification programs. Reference: Rachel Krantz, senior writer, Mercy for Animals; founding editor of Bustle. Follow her: @rachelkrantz.