By now, many people have been shocked by news stories, videos or documentaries revealing deplorable conditions on large-scale industrial farms. The details and images turn our stomachs, offend our consciences and leave us wondering whether there are meat, egg and dairy options out there that don’t come from these kinds of inhumane factory farms.

Indeed, there are better options available. And once you learn to decipher the food labels on the shelves, you can vote for better animal treatment every time you make a purchase.

Label confusion

To the average consumer, terms like “free-range,” “cage-free” and “all-natural” can be confusing and overwhelming. What not enough shoppers realize is that these labels are also very misleading. “Natural,” for example, says nothing about animal welfare. The label “cage-free” on chicken is misleading, since meat chickens aren’t normally raised in cages. The amount of time outdoors and space that “free range” chickens have is not regulated or defined, and “grass-fed” meat products can come from animals partly raised in barren feedlots.

"That means animals have enough room to move and exercise, their environment offers them the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors...and standards aim to limit stress."

On the other hand, there are certifications that are backed by clear standards and actually indicate more humane practices. Consumers who eat meat, eggs or dairy but want more assurances about how animals lived can look for “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane” and “Global Animal Partnership” (Steps 2 and above).

Advancing conditions

While these three certification programs represent a spectrum of welfare, they all prohibit the worst factory farming practices, are verified by on-farm auditors and address animals’ physical and emotional needs. That means animals have enough room to move and exercise, their environment offers them the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors like perching or foraging and standards aim to limit stress around practices like handling, transport or medical care.

Some supermarket and restaurant products carry these certifications, but if yours doesn’t, talk to a manager and request them. If you go to a farmer’s market, talk with farmers directly about conditions on their farms.