The labeling of animal products is becoming more complex, with a plethora of descriptors, including organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, and wild-caught. These labels are attractive, particularly to those conscious of their health or concerned with the welfare of farmed animals. However, they can also be confusing or even misleading. What is the difference between cage-free and free-range, and how can we be sure we're putting foods that align with our ethics and health concerns into our bodies?
Organic animal products, including eggs, milk, and meat, are certified by the United States Department of Agriculture. Livestock farmers must meet strict standards established by the department and their facilities must pass regular inspections for their products to be labeled organic. Organically-farmed livestock is raised on certified organic feed and land. These farms must also ensure animals have access to direct sunlight, clean water, dry bedding, and outdoor space to exercise and graze.
Cage-free eggs are laid by hens allowed to roam and engage in natural behaviors. The "cage-free" label differentiates the eggs from those laid by farmed chickens that spend most of their reproductive lives in cages. Cage-free hens are not kept in cages, but they are most often confined to the barn in which they are housed. The cage-free label does require their caregivers to provide them with access to outdoor space.
Like cage-free, free-range or free-roam eggs are produced by hens that do not spend their reproductive lives in cages. Unlike the cage-free distinction, however, this label tells consumers these hens are free to roam outside of a barn, with access to direct sunlight and fresh air. The chickens are typically allowed a certain amount of time in this open space before returning to their coop.
Pasture-raised egg-laying hens, in addition to other livestock, spend most of the day in a pasture with growing vegetation. The difference between free-range and pasture-raised is this vegetation, which is not necessary for a farm to be considered free-range. Pasture-raised livestock also often have more time and space to roam. This allows animals the greatest opportunity to engage in their natural behaviors, including dust-bathing and foraging for chickens and grazing for cattle, sheep, and goats.
"Grassfed" dairy and beef are derived from cows that, as the name suggests, feed only on grass. Adding grain to a cow's diet to promote quicker weight gain is a common practice in the livestock industry. Grain is not easily digested by cows, however, and this practice may lead to infections or poor health. Grassfed cows are pasture-raised and spend most of their time grazing on vegetation. Their diets are not supplemented with grain or animal by-products, and they do not receive antibiotics or growth hormones.
The "antibiotic-free" label is most often found on poultry and meat. Traditionally, farmers use antibiotics to help prevent and manage disease in livestock, particularly in large-scale corporate farming. Cows fed a diet supplemented with grain are particularly prone to infection, and caged hens are highly susceptible to the spread of disease. Therefore, adopting appropriate diets and allowing animals space to pasture and graze should reduce the need for antibiotics, and this label will often accompany others such as free-range and grassfed.
Hormone-free milk, cream, butter, and cheese come from dairy cows that not administered artificial hormones. Milk production varies among dairy cows and is sensitive to a variety of factors, including the cow's diet and its comfort. Hormones can enhance and extend the production of milk and ensure all cows are producing the maximum amount possible.
Wild-caught seafood differentiates fish that come from a lake, ocean, or river from those that were farm-raised. Wild-caught seafood is often higher in nutritional value because the fish had access to a natural, varied diet. Farm-raised fish also carry a higher risk for contamination and disease. Wild-caught seafood products are often labeled "sustainable." This refers to the fish's population status in the wild. Seafood is considered sustainable if the species' population is healthy, and fishing practices do not threaten survival.
The USDA does not define any standards or regulations for labels other than "organic." The department's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) does, however, provide farmers and businesses the opportunity to have the USDA Grade Shield added to their product to indicate that the AMS has verified the authenticity of the farm's claims. Eggs sold as "cage-free" with the USDA Grade Shield on the packaging are confirmed to have come from a farm with cage-free hen housing.
Several independent, non-profit organizations inspect and certify businesses and farms. The most well-established and trusted of these are A Greener World's Certified Animal Welfare Approved and Humane Farm Animal Care's Certified Humane. These organizations' certifying labels are on products that have passed inspection according to standards set for cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised.
Understanding the differences and similarities between animal product labeling can be tricky, and lack of regulation and oversight makes the task even more difficult. What's pasture-raised to one might be cage-free to another, and the unfortunate reality is that some labels are intentionally misleading. Making an informed decision often requires looking beyond the label. The websites of the USDA and independent certifying organizations provide a wealth of information on labeling standards, in addition to products that meet these standards.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.