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Understanding Egg & Meat Labels

Jun 28, 2023 | Advocacy & Policy, Agriculture | 0 comments

by Jade Greene

Labeling of meat and egg products can be intentionally misleading. Which labels have actual certification requirements? Which denote the most humane treatment of animals? Read on to understand what the labeling actually means and how you get the most nutritious and humanely raised animals:

No label

if there is no mention of the animals’ treatment, they are most likely being raised in a factory farm or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), where they are kept in cramped indoor conditions. These type of operations have negative consequences for the environment, animal welfare, and offer the lowest nutritional meat and eggs.

Certification – no

Outdoor required – no

USDA Organic

This rigorous certification requires that animals are:

  • Raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors
  • Fed organic feed
  • Not administered hormones or unnecessary antibiotics

Although consumers may interpret “raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors” as having access to the outdoors and vegetation, the animals are often kept in factory farm conditions.

Certification – yes, required

Outdoor required – no


Look for this label:

Cage Free

This means the chickens are not kept in a single bird to a cage. Birds are usually kept indoors in a building with many birds together or they are kept in smaller numbers in pens (to prevent “pecking order” hierarchy issues). The animals have more room to move around compared to a cage.

Certification process – no

Outdoor required – no

Free Range or Free Roaming

Animals are allowed access to the outdoors but for how long and how frequently is not regulated. Some free range animals may be outside for a majority of the time, others may only have access for a short time occasionally. There is no knowing.

Certification – optional 

Outdoor required – yes


Look for this label:


 Similar to free range except the animals are given access to grass to eat, but how long and how frequently can vary. Look for 100% grass-fed for animals that are fed a diet completely of grass – applies to ruminants only.

Certification – optional

Outdoor required – yes


Look for this label:



Pasture Raised

Animals raised under these conditions have the best welfare expectations. Animals are allowed to be outside, feed on grass, and have access to environmental enrichment. As with free range and grass-fed, how much time the animals actually spend outside can vary. Pasture raised animals are the most nutritious and most humanely kept. It is worth the extra price.

Certification – optional
Outdoor required – yes


Look for this label:

When in doubt, ask your farmer how they raise their animals! There are many farms in the foodshed that pasture raise their animals, find one on our food map today or visit our farmers markets.


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