Increased coverage of factory farms by the media and filmmakers has exposed the deplorable conditions in which animals are raised on industrial farms. These eye opening accounts have created a new, savvy consumer who is looking for a better quality of meat for themselves and their families. These consumers are relying on food labels to help them choose meat from animals that are raised in a kinder, more natural environment.
Two of the more popular labels are the “Organic” and “Humane” labels, which are often confused with one another. However, it’s important to know that these two labels aren’t the same when it comes to the welfare of the farm animals involved. Let’s clear up the confusion, and walk through the main similarities and differences between the two certifications.
Framework & Certification Process
Imagine that you could apply to university without a transcript and without proof of your high school performance and grades. If this were the case, you could simply claim to be a diligent, hard working “A+” student, when in reality you may be a “B” or “C” student. If this were our educational system, one can only imagine the number of false claims that would be made, and the resulting confusion among universities when trying to evaluate the academic achievements of prospective students.
The example above illustrates the challenges faced by consumers in deciphering food labels such as “cage-free” and “free-range,” which do not have a clear criteria or verification process to support them. Fortunately, both the “organic” and “humane” labels have several legitimate certifications. The top rated “humane” labels are (a) Certified Humane®, (b) Global Animal Partnership and (c) Animal Welfare Approved. All three certifications have high quality, science-based standards and a strong compliance process to support them. To qualify for these certifications, farms must comply with extensive animal welfare standards that cover the animal’s life from birth through slaughter, and all farms are subject to regular audits to ensure compliance.
Similarly, the “organic” certification is overseen by the US and Canadian governments through the USDA and CFIA, respectively. To be considered Certified Organic, farms must comply with a set of objective, publicly available standards, and must undergo ongoing audits to ensure the standards are being met.
When it comes to a farm animal’s diet, the “humane” and “organic” certifications discussed above have many similarities. Under both certifications, the animals’ must be fed exclusively vegetarian feed that is free from animal byproducts, antibiotics and growth hormones. The “organic” certification goes further in this respect, and requires that feed must be organic as well – meaning that it was produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers.
Animal Welfare Standards
The animal welfare component is where “organic” and “humane” really differ. The USDA Organic program lists some general provisions for welfare; however, the few provisions provided are vague and open to much interpretation. There are no specific standards to be upheld, and no specific animal welfare audits to ensure humane conditions are being maintained. The USDA organic standards also do not address critical welfare issues such as acceptable minimum space requirements, cruel body alterations such as debeaking and tail docking, and do not address the significant welfare issues associated with transportation and slaughter.
In contrast, farms that are part of the Certified Humane® program must comply with extensive welfare standards that cover the entire life of the animal, including transportation and slaughter. The standards for each species are specific, objective, and were developed by a scientific committee made up of leading veterinarians and animal scientists. The goal of the standards is to provide animals with a low-stress environment, proper shelter and socialization, and the ability to engage in their natural behaviours. For example, the farms are forbidden from employing cages, crates and tie-stalls, must comply with minimum space requirements, provide proper bedding and gentle handling, and practices such as tail-docking in pig farming and debeaking for chickens and turkeys are not allowed. The standards are extensive, objective and publicly available on the Certified Humane® website.
If you see a product that is labelled organic, you can rest assured that the farm animal consumed a higher quality of feed, but unfortunately you cannot assume it received humane care. If you’re looking for products that you can feel confident were humanely raised, look for a certification from a credible, independent third party specializing in humane farming.