Let’s face it, looking at packaged food, whether for yourself or your pet, can be confusing. With so many different food certifications and buzzwords out in the market today, it can be hard to decipher which ones actually are legitimate, especially when it comes to statements about animal welfare. We’re here to clear up some common misconceptions about food labels and certifications, especially when they have to do with humanely raised meat.

On both human and pet food packaging, a common misleading label you often see is that the food is ‘natural’ or ‘all-natural’. A ‘natural’ pet food is great, but let’s make sure we’re all clear on what this actually means for how the animals involved were raised. This has nothing to do with animal welfare. Natural, means the meat, or food itself, doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or added colours, and that is was minimally processed. The meat still could have come from a factory farm where animals were confined to cages and given routine antibiotics.

Another label to look out for is food dubbed ‘humane’, or ‘humanely raised’. In the United States, the USDA allows companies to create their own meaning of what is deemed “humane” and if the company meets the standards it has made then it gets its own seal of approval. This pretty much means that the chickens used in your current dog food could have been raised in a small confined crate because that is what the company considers to be “humane”.

What you want to be looking for when you see a humane label, is that the food is certified by a third party organization specializing in animal welfare, and who also make their standards and practices publicly available. But how do you know if the organization is legitimate?  First, a certification that has a third party auditing system - this means that an external party comes to check if all standards are being met - is a key place to start. There is no ‘self-regulation’ with a third party auditing system.  Self- regulation in the food industry is a slippery slope, and when you have companies monitoring their own behaviour, you have to wonder if their best interest is in the animal’s welfare, or the bottom line. An independent auditor only has the interest of ensuring that standards are being properly followed.

There are a handful of trustworthy third-party auditing systems that ensure higher welfare standards for farm animals. These include, Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW managed by A Greener World, and Global Animal Partnership, a system based on a five-step rating system designed by animal welfare advocates, scientists and farmers. Finally, there is also the Certified Humane label by the Human Farm Animal Care program, a non-profit with extensive standards created by a 36-member scientific committee of animal scientists and veterinarians from Canada, Europe, South America and the U.S.

The advantages of seeing a product that is labeled as, for example, Certified Humane, means that the product complies with a very strict set of guidelines, from birth to slaughter, that ensures the humane treatment of animals. The feed given to them is free of animal by-products, growth hormones, and antibiotics.  Also, the livestock is not contained to a cage or crate, but is free to roam and exhibit its natural behaviours. The producers of the meat must also subject themselves to ongoing third party audits of their farms and manufacturing processes in order to keep their designation. In the end, 100% of the standards must be met for a product to be deemed as Certified Humane. It’s a pass or fail system, no go-betweens.

Pet food labeling shouldn’t be a mystery, but if you’re ever unsure if your pet food is ethically sourced, you should be able to contact the company and ask them about their welfare program, or how they qualify their ‘humane’ label.