Animal products these days are covered with tons of different labels that have implications about how the product was produced and the welfare of that animal during its life.

These labels are intentionally vague so that the consumer can come to their own conclusions about what the labels are actually saying. What do these labels really mean? Do they have any bearing on the quality of the animals’ lives and welfare?

Here at Centre College, we do not have a choice between “cage free,” “free range,” or “certified humane” eggs and meats in Cowan Dining Commons.

After graduation, we do. 77 % of Centre’s seniors surveyed said that they planned to change their diet after they left Centre. However, only 13% of those students said that they plan on becoming vegetarian or vegan.

I asked the senior class what they thought a few common food product labels meant. In every category, the students responded with the types of answers that the producers would like all of us to believe. For “cage free” and “free range,” the responses were generally the same.

There was an overwhelming idea that animals (egg-laying chickens were mentioned most often) were not kept in any kind of cage but rather in a barn where they were left to live free and happy lives with access to the outdoors.

When asked what “certified humane” meant, students said that they believed that the animals were both raised and killed in humane ways, but no one gave their definition of humane (even though a few said that they believed their personal standards were probably higher than the industry’s).

With every different label, a few people said that they were not completely sure what it really meant. It’s hard to know what the labels really mean when they imply that animals are “unrestrained” and “allowed to roam free in large enclosures.”

Leaving Centre, our seniors are going out into the “real world.” With 70% of the students surveyed starting jobs within three months of graduation, budgets will be tight.

That being said, it is important to know what we are really spending our money on. Luckily, the Humane Society has put together two fact sheets that are guides to reading labels and what those labels mean for animal welfare.

“Cage free,” when referring to egg production, means just that – the chickens are not in cages. However, they do not have access to the outdoors, beak cutting is permitted, and there is no third-party auditing. Since there are no auditing or density regulations, large numbers of chickens can be put in one barn.

“Free range” eggs come from chickens that live uncaged inside of barns and have some kind of access to the outdoors; however, there are no requirements for the amount or quality of that access. Forced molting through starvation and beak cutting is allowed.

The “certified humane” label is very similar to the “cage free” label except that forced molting through starvation is prohibited, there are requirements for stocking densities, and it is verified through third-party auditing.

For larger animals produced for meat, “certified humane” generally means that the animals are outside (except for turkeys and pigs), are given bedding, hormone and nontherapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited, and pain relief or anesthesia and analgesia must be used for any physical alterations, depending on the animal’s age. The labeling program (Humane Farm Animal Care) verifies compliance.

As you can see, different labels can mean a varity of different things, and those differences can be small. There are many, many more labels that all sound and look very similar to each other, but each label can come from a different labeling program and control for a different level of animal welfare.

Senior class, what will you choose next year? Will you consider food product labels and the implications those labels have for animal welfare?

Are you willing to change your eating habits and adjust your purchasing habits in support of the ethical treatment of animals? I encourage you to do a little more digging and find out what more labels mean before you make your next purchase. The choice is up to you!

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