Free-Range, Cage-Free, Grass-Fed: What Does it All Mean?

by Evan DeMarco on May 27, 2022

Free-Range, Cage-Free, Grass-Fed: What Does it All Mean?

You’ve probably seen the labels on your food: free-range, cage-free, grass-fed. What does it all mean?

These buzzwords are called “humane labeling,” and most people trust them to indicate whether animal food products are safe and ethical to eat. Unfortunately, not all humane labels are accurate—nor do they necessarily ensure that we’re getting healthy and delicious food. That doesn’t mean that you have to give up animal products to lead an ethical lifestyle. All you need is to do a little research.

When you’re at the grocery store, those humane labels look appealing. In fact, marketing studies indicate that the misleading label titles lure us into a false sense of security. It’s easy to assume they all mean “healthy” and “ethical.” Here’s what you need to know about humane labels.

Common humane labels

This website offers a color-coded guide to dozens of humane labels. Remember to read them together, to get a better sense of how the animals were treated.

Here are some of the most common labels you’ll see at the store.

  • Cage-free: According to the USDA, cage-free eggs are from chickens who were “never confined to a cage and have had unlimited access to food, water, and the freedom to roam.” Unfortunately, there are no standards as to how much room the hens have. And when it comes to meat, the term is meaningless. Poultry birds aren’t caged before processing.
  • Certified humane: This label comes from a third-party nonprofit group of the same name. Hens laying eggs must have at least two square feet of space—but they’re not required to spend any time outdoors. Certain practices for meat birds and pigs, like beak and tail docking, are not allowing. Unfortunately, since the farms aren’t consistently audited, this label might not be as humane as it initially seems.
  • Free-range: A free-range animal has access to the outdoors, but there’s no guarantee how long they’ll actually spend there. USDA standards specify that the animals are allowed outside for at least half their lives, but livestock typically have much shorter lives. Between lax standards and inclement weather, some animals may never see the outdoors at all.
  • Grass-fed: Grass-fed is another meaningless term, at least on its own. You might think that it means the animals had only been fed grass and foraged food, but some are still “finished” with grain before slaughter. Look for the USDA “process verified” stamp.
  • Natural: These foods contain no artificial ingredients or added colors. It does not mean hormone- or antibiotic-free, nor does it indicate how the animals were raised. In the future, the USDA and/or FDA may implement “natural” standards.
  • No added hormones or antibiotics: This is slightly misleading: there are no “hormone-free” animal products, because animals naturally produce hormones. The USDA also doesn’t test for hormones. The label simply means the animals were given neither antibiotics nor additional hormones.
  • Organic: Organic foods follow USDA standards for farming practices, pest and weed control, raising livestock and soil quality—but it doesn’t mean organic meat is free of chemicals and additives. Organic animal products mean the animal was given outdoor access for at least 120 days per year, if their lifespan is so long.
  • Pasture-raised: Generally, this label (and free-range) indicates an animal has continuous access to pastures and natural vegetation. There are no industry-wide standards at this time, so there’s no way for consumers to verify accuracy.
  • Wild-caught: “Wild-caught” refers to fish. While it is a USDA standard, it’s not well-enforced. Experts estimate that over half the fish sold with a “wild-caught” label are farmed instead.

Marketing and the humane label conundrum

Buying ethically-raised and sourced food makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing. Marketing studies have indicated that we associate better flavor and quality with humane labels. Some participants assign a “penalty” to factory-farmed meat products, once they’re told of its origins—even when the “humanely labeled product” is the exact same thing. In other words, we genuinely believe we can taste the difference.

While humane animal products might actually taste better (the way an animal is fed can have a significant impact on meat flavor), it’s important to be aware of this psychological effect. It’s yet another reminder that we all must do the research to ensure our humanely raised meat and dairy are all they claim to be. There’s no shame in falling for marketing tactics: companies use them because they work. Now that you know better, you’re equipped to make good choices whenever you buy food.