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Truth Behind the Labels: How Meat Eaters Can Find Out if Their Dinner Was Really Humanely Raised

So what does humane treatment of animals actually look like? Who defines it? And most important, if you're a meat eater, what is your personal line?

This storyfirst appeared on EcoSalon.

A few years ago, on a tour of a small village in Vietnam, we were taken to a small farm compound, where the residents manufactured rice paper wrappers for spring rolls and raised a few farm animals for food. There were chickens clucking around and a few friendly, waddling ducks. There was also an enormous pig housed in a small, concrete enclosure.

As our group approached, the pig rose up on her hind legs, placed her front legs on the ledge of her pen, and looked us all straight in the eyes with a completely charming mixture of intelligence and humor. Without a doubt, that pig was posing. The pen was small, but clean. The pig appeared to have plenty of freedom of movement. The pig was whole, no cropped tail, no sores, nothing amiss. I can’t pretend to know if that pig was a happy pig. But from my limited human perspective, she looked contented.

Every time I think about how we raise animals for food, I think about that expressive pig. That pig represents both my deep ambivalence about eating animals and also what I think of as the ideal way to raise animals for food.

For those of us who do eat meat, who don’t raise our own animals, one at a time, or who cannot afford to pay top dollar to buy direct from a very small farm, that ideal is pretty near unattainable.

For conscious omnivores, who eat meat sparingly and thoughtfully, who avoid meat raised under conditions that we call “factory farming,” what is a reasonable level of animal welfare in farming? And how accurate are our perceptions of what constitutes “good farming”?  Farming is a struggle for farmers. There is a delicate balance between the scale and methods that will allow the farmer to stay in business and earn a living, and letting the animals experience life as naturally as possible.

So what does humane treatment of animals actually look like? Who defines it? And most important, if you’re a meat eater, what is your personal line?

The Humane Society of the United States has been actively documenting the worst abuses of factory farming in a series of undercover investigations. In December, a video showing atrocities at a Smithfield pig breeding facility in Virginia was released. The pigs were kept in gestation crates barely large enough for their bodies for their entire lives, live pigs were thrown in dumpsters, and baby piglets were left to die in manure pits after falling through the slats of the crates that their mothers spent their entire lives in.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, a video documenting the routine mutilation of turkey poults at the nation’s largest turkey hatching facility was released. Fifty percent of the turkeys available in typical grocery stores came from that particular hatchery.

How can you be sure that you are not contributing to such practices? Find out what humane treatment is, study the certifications, and then buy meat that you can feel good about.

At a glance, here are the various certifications, their affiliations, and their logos:

Animal Welfare Approved: Animal Welfare Institute (non-profit)

Humane Farm Animal Care: Humane Society of the United States (non-profit)

Global Animal Partnership: Non-profit, but partially funded by and affiliated with Whole Foods

USDA Organic: Govt agency (the National Organic Program includes animal welfare standards into its rules)

American Humane Certified: The American Humane Association (not-for-profit corporation)

All these standards are summarized here. Download the pdf chart to see a chart of side-by-side comparisons.

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