Looking behind the label of “ethical” animal products
Free-run, free-range, Born-3, grain-fed, non-medicated? The labels all sound good, but are the animals actually treated better on these farms? How would you know?
Divided into three categories: BEST, NEXT BEST and AVOID! - here is a guide to what’s behind the labels.
Click the image on the left to print a full-size copy of our handy guide on egg carton labels.
This is a starter guide meant to act as a brief overview for consumers (more details below). We encourage all consumers to look further into the management practices behind food labelling claims, especially free run and free range claims, before making their purchases.
BEST: CHOOSE A CERTIFIED LABEL
Some claims are misleading or viewed as giving a product a false uniqueness. Ignore marketing claims like “country fresh” (which really doesn’t mean much) and look for packaging labels reviewed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Certified farms are regularly inspected assessed to a set of standards. Choosing a certified label supports farmers who go through a rigorous auditing process to ensure transparency to consumers and a high level of care for animals.
SPCA CERTIFIED – The product comes from a farm following prescribed standards of animal welfare that prohibit confinement housing, limit painful practices and require that natural behavioural needs are met. The farm is assessed annually by a trained Validator and third party, independent reviewers determine certification. The animal welfare standards are developed by an expert panel of animal welfare researchers, veterinarians, and farmers in consultation with the BC SPCA.
SPCA Certified animals are raised as either free-run or free-range (see definitions below). Each year the farmer is re-certified, and there are random (unannounced) audits to ensure compliance. The SPCA Certified red barn logo (image above right) is CFIA reviewed and permitted for use on food packaging and marketing materials in Canada.
Meet SPCA Certified farmers - Buy SPCA Certified foods - Download program Standards
GLOBAL ANIMAL PARTNERSHIP (GAP) – Farms are certified in a 5-step animal welfare rating program. Higher steps require farms to meet strict welfare standards. Lower steps (1-2) facilitate transition of conventional farms, but allow harmful practices as a result.
ANIMAL WELFARE APPROVED – Animals must be free from confinement housing, have outdoor access and the ability to engage in natural behaviours.
CERTIFIED ORGANIC – Certified organic standards include some animal welfare provisions, such as free-range requirements, within the organic management practices. Organic certification in Canada is governed by provincial or federal regulations, depending on the final product’s destination (i.e. intra-provincial, inter-provincial, export market). Imported organic products are governed by the federal Canadian Organic Regulations.
In B.C. supermarkets, the most common certified organic labels are:
• COABC (Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia);
• QAI (Quality Assurance International);
• Pro-Cert (Pro-Cert Organic Services);
• Canada Organic Regime (federally regulated; overseen by CFIA Canada Organic Office)
Although not backed up by certification, some product labelling suggests animals were raised in a more humane manner. Farms under the labels listed below can provide very high levels of welfare, if managed well; however, if they have not been certified, then they have not been inspected, which means you cannot be sure what standards are met. It's best to follow up with the farmer and ask questions!
FREE-RUN – This wording is found mostly on eggs. Hens that produce these eggs are raised free of cages and are kept entirely indoors. While these animals have no access to outdoor vegetation, they are protected from external threats, such as predators and parasites. All meat chickens in B.C. are raised free-run unless it is labelled as “free-range” or “organic,” so if you see chicken labelled “free-run,” without further qualifications it’s nothing special in B.C.
Most pork we eat comes from young pigs that have never been housed in a stall or crate, but their mothers may have been. So if you see the term "free-run" used on pork, be sure to ask whether the mother pigs are housed in stalls (crates), or if they are allowed to roam around freely too.
FREE-RANGE – These animals are raised free of cages and other types of confinement housing and are provided with access to the outdoors, weather-permitting. The outdoor area provided does not guarantee suitable or useable pasture for grazing or foraging. This wording is found mostly on eggs, chicken, and sometimes pork. If you see this term on pork, be sure to ask whether the mother pigs are housed in stalls (crates), or if they are allowed to roam around outside too.
PASTURE-RAISED – Some farms are differentiating from free-range by providing animals with access to pasture and allowing them to graze or forage, weather permitting, and presumably for most of their lives. A claim like this needs to be further explained to know exactly what it means, as it does not indicate quality of pasture or total time spent grazing. This wording is found on eggs, chicken, beef and pork.
GRASS-FED –There are a variety of labels and certifications claiming grass-fed. Animals usually have access to pasture and a diet that is composed entirely of grass and forage. This claim is used mostly for beef cattle and sheep/lamb.
Don’t be fooled by any claims that vaguely imply animal welfare benefits! In many cases, the claims below do not refer at all to how an animal was raised, and inspection and certification to animal welfare standards has not occurred.
ANIMAL CARE CERTIFIED – An assessment model is under development to which farms will be assessed to minimum farm animal care requirements outlined in the Canadian Codes of Practice. It is unclear yet whether farms, once assessed, will earn a certification. Animals in this program are not necessarily raised to higher welfare standards than on conventional farms. As of November 2015, the program was still under development and was not yet in practice (i.e. farms not yet certified), yet some egg and pork products are already using this label.
ENRICHED COLONY, COMFORT COOP or NEST-LAID – These claims are used for egg-laying hens and typically apply to enriched or furnished cage systems. These cages provide marginally more space than battery cages and lack sufficient nesting or scratch areas to significantly improve animal welfare.
ANIMAL-FRIENDLY – This claim does not guarantee that animals were raised humanely.
COUNTRY FRESH – These claims have no real meaning regarding the methods used to raise the animals or the actual quality of the products. The term “fresh,” for example, is not permitted on egg cartons.
NATURALLY RAISED – Natural can only be used on meat, poultry and fish products if it can be proven that the animals were raised with minimal help from humans and were never given or administered substances including vaccinations, antibiotics, medications, veterinary drugs, hormones, direct fed microbials or formulated feeds. This is a very hard (almost impossible) claim to make under current Canadian labelling policies.
NON-MEDICATED – This claim could be made because the animals are not exposed to any pharmaceutical drugs (e.g. antibiotics) over the course of their lives, or because they were fed non-medicated feed. This claim gives no indication of how the animals were raised.
RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS – This claim implies animals are not given antibiotics throughout the animal’s whole life (including in the womb). Using the term "antibiotic free" is inaccurate and creates a false uniqueness, as all Canadian animals must be free of antibiotic residues upon slaughter. This claim gives no indication of how the animals were raised.
RAISED WITHOUT THE USE OF HORMONES – This claim can only apply to beef cattle as they are the only animals allowed to have hormonal implants in Canada. For those animals where hormones are not permitted, a claim such as "like other chickens, these were raised without the use of hormones" should be used, otherwise it is a false labelling claim. Packages should say “raised without the use of hormones” and not “hormone free”, as hormones are found naturally within all of us. This claim gives no indication of how the animals were raised.
MAPLE LEAF PRIME NATURALLY – Animals on these farms are raised in the same manner as other conventional farms. The company markets its product based on food safety and feed requirements and not on any special treatment of the animals.
VEGTABLE-FED or GRAIN-FED – Many farm animals are fed meat by-products as a protein or fat source. These label claims do not specify whether the animals’ feed contains veterinary drugs or preservatives. Unless a statement like “no animal by-products” follows the term, there can be no assurance that the feed only contains grains. There is no indication of how the animals were raised outside of what they were fed.
BORN-3 – These eggs typically come from conventionally raised, caged hens fed a unique diet. The diet provided modifies the fat in the egg yolk.
Codes of Practice
Canada’s Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals lay out national expectations for animal welfare as agreed upon by consensus between the farmers, veterinarians, scientists, government agencies, SPCA’s and humane societies who are members of the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC).
The Codes have many functions. They outline minimum requirements and recommended best practices and serve as reference documents for animal cruelty laws. The Codes form the foundation of on-farm animal welfare assurance programs operated by some Canadian farming associations. Additionally, the Codes are widely used as an educational tool to inform farming professionals about sound management practices for the housing, care and transport of their animals.
While the Codes provide an important baseline for minimum standards of care, most animal welfare organizations believe additional requirements are necessary to truly ensure farm animals have good welfare. For this reason, the BC SPCA created animal welfare standards that go beyond conventional practice. Participating farms are assessed through the SPCA Certified program.
In Canada, there are several food certification programs with standards for animal welfare, the environment, or workers’ rights. The federal Food and Drugs Act, section 5 (1) states that “No person shall label, package, treat, process, sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reviews food packaging and related marketing materials under the federal acts and regulations. Labels that have not gone through this process could feature information that prevents consumers from making informed choices at the retail level.
The CFIA’s Consumer Protection/Fair Labelling Practices section acts as the labelling police, inspecting to ensure compliance and doing market intelligence on advertisements, websites, retailers, manufacturers and importers. Thousands of labels are screened each year and educational seminars are conducted to mitigate labelling confusion. If you see a label claim on a package that confuses you, contact CFIA through their website for further investigation.
Page updated: November 30, 2015