Do you care about animal welfare on organic farms?

Find out which labels you should look for.

When shopping for food, over half of consumers think about the farm animals raised for meat, dairy, and eggs, and whether they were treated humanely. And consumers who always or often buy foods with the organic label are especially concerned with farm-animal welfare.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency in charge of federal standards for foods labeled “organic,” published a new rule last year to strengthen requirements for humane treatment and animal welfare on organic farms. But despite overwhelming support for the rule, the current administration at the USDA has failed to implement it by extending the effective date multiple times, and has even proposed withdrawing it entirely.

What does that mean for consumers who care about sustainable food production and farm-animal welfare? The existing organic standards will remain in place, and these standards are clear in many important areas. The USDA Organic seal will continue to mean that animals were fed organic feed from crops grown without harmful synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Animals on organic farms aren’t given antibiotics (with the exception of day-old chicks), growth hormones, or other drugs in the absence of disease. Buying organic is definitely still worth the extra cost.

But the existing organic standards are less clear when it comes to animal welfare. For example, there’s a requirement for “year-round access for all animals to the outdoors.” Most organic farmers provide ample outdoor space for their animals, but some large-scale poultry and egg producers meet the current requirement for outdoor access with a small, entirely enclosed concrete or dirt-covered porch. The current organic standards don’t specify the minimum outdoor space required per animal or include a clear statement that tiny screened-in concrete porches for thousands of chickens don’t qualify as the “outdoors.” As a result, the USDA lets these producers sell poultry and eggs as organic.

The new rule would add many clear and measurable standards for animal welfare. For chickens, for example, it would set a minimum outdoor-space requirement and specifically prohibit concrete porches, set maximum allowable levels of indoor ammonia to ensure clean air, require at least 6 inches of perch space per hen for roosting, and more.

But this rule will probably not be implemented, allowing producers who interpret a tiny concrete porch as the “outdoors” to continue selling their poultry and eggs as “organic.”

Fortunately for consumers, there are several certification programs that set high standards for animal welfare. Farms that meet these standards can display the certification program’s seal or logo on their meat, dairy and egg labels.

So, in addition to the USDA Organic seal, look for the following when shopping for meat, dairy and eggs:

  • Animal Welfare Approved. This certification program sets high standards for animal welfare. Animals are raised on family farms, where they can roam on pasture or range and have ample space to engage in their natural, instinctive behaviors.
  • Certified Humane. Many of the requirements in the new rule for organic farms are similar to those in the Certified Humane standards. So look for this seal on the label of organic meat, poultry, dairy and eggs. For assurance that laying hens were able to go outdoors, look for the “free range” or “pasture raised” claim on the egg carton’s label as well. 
  • Global Animal Partnership. Meat sold at Whole Foods Markets carries this seal, which ranges from Step 1 to Step 5+. The higher the step level, the higher the standards for animal welfare on the farm. For assurance chickens had meaningful outdoor access, look for Step 4 or higher.
  • American Humane Certified + “free range” or “pasture raised.” The American Humane Certified seal on its own doesn’t necessarily meet the expectations that most consumers have for an animal welfare label; for example, pigs with piglets can be kept in small crates. But if you see this label with the “free range” or “pasture raised” claim on a carton of eggs, then it means that the chickens were raised with plenty of outdoor space.  

If your goal is to support farms with high standards for animal welfare, ignore the following:

  • “Free Range.” Unless this claim is accompanied by the Certified Humane or American Humane Certified seal, it doesn’t mean that a meaningful amount of outdoor space was provided to the birds. 
  • United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified. The standards behind this label do not include any meaningful animal welfare provisions. The United Egg Producers Certified guidelines even allow for continuous confinement in crowded cages, which the current organic regulations prohibit. Learn more.