Today third-party certifications are the most reliable way for consumers to know where their food comes from and how it was treated. Animal welfare certifications empower consumers who eat meat with trusted information so that they can buy products that more closely match their values. They also help consumers decipher true higher-welfare products from those labeled with “humane washing” marketing. As consumer demand for higher-welfare products and transparency in our food system grow, welfare certifications are essential to making better purchasing decisions and improving animal welfare. The leading certifications in the United States that make a meaningful difference for animals are Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), and American Grassfed. Each certification is driven by their own values and set by their own animal welfare standards. All of these certifications are designed to improve the lives of farmed animals while creating transparency and trust in a broken food system. But not all certifications are equal, and it’s hard to know who to trust.
Not All Certifications are Created Equal
Given all of the choices that we have today, how can we be sure that the products we buy align with our values? One way is to understand what labels and certification standards actually mean. Some certifications have more stringent welfare standards than others, and within some certifications there may be multiple tiers that designate important welfare differences. Product packaging more often than not fails to communicate these variations. To help consumers make more informed decisions we outlined the differences that the top third-party certifications make for farmed animals as well as highlighted areas where there’s room for improvement.
American Humane Certified
The American Humane Association (AHA) created the first welfare certification program in the United States to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals.1 The American Humane Certified Animal Welfare Standards are species specific and based on input from their own Scientific Advisory Board. Many of the AHA standards are less rigorous than other certifications and therefore are preferred by meat companies. The ease with which companies can gain this certification has resulted in AHA becoming the largest animal welfare certification in the U.S. As recently reported in The New York Times, American Humane Certified does not measure up to other certifications when it comes to animal welfare and transparency. It enables industrial meat producers to take advantage of consumers by offering a welfare certification that doesn’t truly reflect higher welfare for farmed animals. The biggest issue with AHC is that they only require 85 percent of the total points possible for award during an audit. By contrast, other certifying groups require complete compliance with their standards at audit. Due to the uncertainty that this policy creates, we recommend consumers avoid all products that are only AHA certified as their standards are barely better than standard industry practice. It’s impossible to know how the animals raised on their farms were treated. We will continue to put pressure on AHA to improve their standards so that they align with what consumers expect for basic treatment of farmed animals.
The Humane Farm Animal Care program’s standards aim to improve living conditions, treatment during transportation, and treatment during slaughter. Certified Humane (CH) requires that animals are given space to exhibit their natural behaviors (such as perching and dustbathing for laying hens and rooting for pigs), adequate shelter and resting areas, and mandates that animals are not fed subtherapeutic antibiotics or growth promotants. While not all Certified Humane animals are required to be pastured, some might be. As stated on their website, “Welfare is more important to us than the farming system involved – and free-range does not automatically guarantee improved welfare… We [have] found that appropriately designed and well managed indoor systems can equally satisfy an animal’s key requirements.”2 Certified Humane certification does address transportation and slaughter, and all certified farms are verified during annual on-farm audits conducted by trained auditors employed by Certified Humane.3 While Certified Humane does hold their farmers to somewhat higher animal welfare standards, their certification could improve the lives of farmed animals to an even greater extent if they were to join other top certifications like Global Animal Partnership’s Step 5+ and Animal Welfare Approved in addressing animal genetics and access to pasture.
Global Animal Partnership
Global Animal Partnership (GAP) works to improve the lives of animals step by step. The 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program “promotes and facilitates continuous improvement in animal agriculture, encourages animal welfare friendly farming practices, and better informs consumers about the animal farming systems they choose to support.”4 Higher “Step” levels signify that higher standards of animal welfare were met. The standards cover how animals are handled on the farm, their feed, their housing conditions, requirements for outdoor space and drug use (e.g., prohibitions on antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones).5 Currently GAP’s Step 1 chicken standards are similar to industry best practices. For other species, including cattle and pigs, GAP Step 1 offers somewhat better welfare than industry best practices. We recommend consumers not choose GAP Step 1 products, as GAP Step 1 does not represent a significant enough improvement over uncertified products, though this should change once GAP’s recent commitment to improving basic genetic welfare for chickens is phased in at all levels (by 2024). Step 2 includes standards for indoor living conditions and enriched environments, but birds are not provided outdoor access. Step 3 requires seasonal outdoor access for animals and prohibits physical alterations of broiler chickens. Step 4 introduces a pasture based system, and Step 4 producers are required to raise slower-growing animals that can live healthier lives. Step 5 already considers animal genetics and prohibits physical alterations in all animals. Step 5+ is animal centered and requires on farm slaughter. GAP has recently addressed welfare at slaughter by implementing standards for turkey, pork, bison, lamb, and goat, and will soon roll out slaughter standards for both beef and chicken as well.
Animal Welfare Approved
Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) has the most rigorous standards for farm animal welfare and environmental sustainability currently in use by any U.S. farm program.6 The premise of the Animal Welfare Approved standards is that animals must be allowed to behave naturally. AWA is the only label that currently requires pasture access for all animals and one of two labels to have standards addressing welfare during slaughter. AWA standards only allow the use of antibiotics for the treatment of sick animals, not to compensate for cramped dirty conditions or unhealthy genetics. For certain species such as poultry, AWA has standards requiring the use of slower-growing or heritage breeds and prohibits the use of the fastest growing animals raised on most farms. AWA also does not allow dual-production, so farmers who have AWA for a specific breed must raise all animals to the same standards. This means that AWA is used only by the most dedicated farmers. The number and availability of AWA products continues to grow, but is still limited. Most often these products can be found by buying directly from your local AWA farmer.
American Grassfed Association
The American Grassfed Association’s (AGA) standards apply to ruminant animals only — beef, bison, goat, lamb and sheep.7 AGA concentrates on four main areas of production: Diet—Animals are fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest, Confinement—Animals are raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots, Antibiotics and Hormones—Animals are never treated with growth hormones and only allow the use of antibiotics for the treatment of sick animals, Origin—All animals are born and raised on American family farms.Their Certified producers are audited annually by independent, third parties to ensure continuing compliance with the standards. They do not have standards that cover welfare at slaughter.
Buying Certified Makes a Difference
Deceptive marketing claims don’t just confuse consumers—they also put higher-welfare farmers at a disadvantage. Certified higher-welfare farmers deserve to be rewarded for providing healthier and more humane alternatives to factory-farming. Instead, all too often they are undersold by companies that rely on humane washing to make it appear that they are raising animals in better conditions. Animal welfare certifications are crucial to our ability to reward higher-welfare farmers and are the cornerstone of a new relationship of trust between consumers and farmers. These certifications allow us to buy food that aligns with our values and are essential to creating a more just, humane, and transparent post-factory farm food system.
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- The American Humane Association. Available here.
- Humane Farm Animal Care. Available here.
- Consumer Reports. Greener Choices: Food Labels. Available here.
- Global Animal Partnership. Available here.
- Consumer Reports. Greener Choices: Food Labels. Available here.
- Animal Welfare Approved Standards. Available here.
- American Grassfed Association Standards. Available here.