Cage Free, Free Range, Pasture Raised… Here’s What the Labels Mean for Your Health and the Animal’s.

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It’s really quite simple: Healthier animals produce healthier meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs.

Products from humanely raised livestock typically do cost more. But the long-term price of eating protein from industrial (factory farmed) livestock is much higher. Like, cancer higher and obesity higher and chronic illness higher… You get the point.

So how do you find quality protein from humanely-raised livestock?

Healthier livestock produce healthier food

Ideally, you want to choose meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy from animals who were raised as naturally as possible. At the very least this means they were not fed growth hormones or antibiotics, both of which have serious health implications for the people (and pets) who eat them.

You also want the animals to have roamed freely. Beyond the obvious humane reasons, it is unhealthy for animals to live in tight, closed-in quarters because if one animal gets sick, they all get sick.

Finally, you want the animals to have been fed the diet that nature intended for them. A natural diet means the animals consume the key nutrients their bodies need and are more likely to maintain a healthy immune system.

The labels that describe these simple characteristics can get a little confusing, so here’s the low-down…

Not a compelling choice

Cage-free (poultry & eggs) is a popular marketing label that doesn’t mean much. While it is a very slight step up from the living conditions of most industrially-raised animals, the poultry are not as “free” as this label might imply.

Slightly better (but still not great)

Free-range (poultry & eggs) means the animal had continuous access to the outdoors. However, that does not mean they actually went outside or that the pasture could support grazing.

Grass-fed (beef, lamb, goat) means the animal ate grass or hay. Unless the label also says “pasture-fed”, the animal may have spent most of its time indoors, possibly in cramped living conditions.

Pasture-fed (or “pastured”) means the animals ate grass outdoors, but were also fed grain. “Pasture-fed” (on its own) does not guarantee healthy living conditions. Pasture raised is much better (scroll down to the “best” options below).
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We’re getting closer

USDA certified organicThe organic label means the animals were fed 100% organic food and were never treated with hormones or antibiotics. The animal may still have been fed grains (organic grains), however it does mean the animal enjoyed healthier living conditions.

The organic certification is expensive, so farmers may raise their animals to organic (or mostly organic) standards, but not pay for the certification. If you get your meat at the farmer’s market, it’s easy to ask how the animals were raised, regardless of whether it carries the organic stamp. If the food does not carry the organic certification (and you’re at the store vs. the farmer’s market), look for all these words on the label: pasture-fed + grass-fed + hormone-free + antibiotic-free.

Best choice

Pasture-raised animals are raised on a pasture their entire lives, where they eat food provided by nature and can forage for worms, bugs or grass, as their instincts dictate. The animals may have access to shelter during bad weather, but are otherwise kept outdoors.

Also look for the words hormone-free, antibiotic-free or organic in addition to pasture-raised on the label (or the menu) to ensure the healthiest and highest quality food.

Certified HumaneAnimal Welfare ApprovedAnimal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane means the animals were raised according to strict standards. These certifications cover the animals’ diet, living conditions, slaughter conditions and more, also resulting in higher quality and safer, healthier food.

In summary, the healthiest-raised animals would include all these words on the label: Pasture-raised + Organic + Certified Humane (or Animal Welfare Approved).

Good To Know

  • The diet of most industrial farm animals (including farmed fish, believe it or not) consists mainly of genetically modified corn, soy and other foods their bodies cannot easily digest. The digestive infections and disease that result from this unnatural diet may end up in the foods these animals produce.
  • Pork and poultry are never labeled “grass-fed” because pigs and poultry do need some grain in their diet.
  • Buying directly from a farmer’s market or CSA means you can ask questions directly from the farmer and ensure the farm meets your personal standards for health and safety.
  • Never feel embarrassed to ask your waiter or chef where their food comes from or how it was raised. These have become popular questions and most waiters are accustomed to hearing them.


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