Grocery Stores – What to look for
Look for a "grass-fed" label
Grass-fed animals eat grass for most of their lives - unlike most industrially raised animals, which are fed grain. If you want 100% grass-fed meat (also known as grass-finished), look for "100% grass-fed" on the label. Otherwise, grass-fed means the animals were also fed grain for a portion of their lives.
How does this benefit animals? Ruminants evolved to eat grass. Grain creates an acidic environment in their stomachs, often leading to digestive troubles and the need for antibiotic treatment. Also: grass-fed animals tend to be kept on pasture for the grazing season, allowing them to roam freely and engage in natural behaviors with fellow animals. And: the benefits of grass-fed meat to humans and the environment are numerous.
Pasture-raised animals live primarily on fields or in woods, where they eat grass, plants, or shrubs. A farmer might add grain to their diet, but the emphasis is on where the animal lived, not what it ate.
How does this benefit animals? Animals on pasture are like schoolkids on a playground: they have room to roam, fresh air and sunshine, and the company of other animals. They eat what they evolved to eat, lessening the chance of illness. And if a farmer is managing her grassland well, the chance of health problems for animals is reduced. Pasturing is currently experiencing a rennaissance in America and there's lots of info about how it benefits animals.
This label is primarily used on poultry products. Free-range chickens and turkeys are raised in barns and given access to the outdoors. (How much time they actually spend out there, and whether the outdoor area is pasture, concrete, or bare ground, varies from farm to farm. Indoor conditions might also vary. You can't be sure how a farm or company defines "free-range" unless you dig deeper.)
How this benefits animals: These birds have more access to fresh air and roaming space than indoor-only birds. If they have well-managed pasture, they can eat the seeds, worms, bugs, and vegetation that they evolved to eat.
These organizations certify farms for humane treatment of animals. Look for these labels! Each organization has different standards but all of them require animals to be raised more naturally than in the standard factory farm.
Certified Humane animals are never housed in cages, crates, or tie stalls. They're not required to be pastured (though they could be) and the poultry systems are not required to be free-range, but indoor environments must allow animals to engage in natural behaviors. Details here.
Animal Welfare Approved is a pasture-based certification, meaning animals on AWA farms were raised primarily outdoors and on pasture. For this reason, AWA is considered to be the most rigorous certification program for animal welfare. It requires that no animals be kept in cages, crates, or tie stalls, and animals must be allowed to engage in natural behaviors. Details here.
The GAP program (Global Animal Partnership) is used at Whole Foods stores. There, you'll see meat labeled Steps 1 through 5. A Step 3, 4, or 5 label means the animals were raised in a free-range or pasture-centered environment. (Steps 1 and 2 indicate that more industrial agricultural practices were used; they do not offer much of a difference over standard meat.) Details here. Right now, GAP labels are only found at Whole Foods stores but the program could expand to other stores in the future.
A farm that is "certified organic" is audited annually and must follow the federal organic standards. A farm can simply call itself "organic" and not be certified -- but in those cases, you have to trust that the farmer is actually following organic practices. The federal standards require that animals eat only organic feed (no GMOs or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers) and they cannot be given antibiotics or synthetic hormones. Whether they eat grass or grain is not specified.
How this benefits animals: All certified organic animals must have access to the outdoors, though for how long and how often is not specified. Cows, sheep, and goats must have pasture aduring the grazing season. Pigs and poultry aren't required to have pasture, only access to the outdoors. Because certified organic farmers are banned from treating their animals with certain conventional medicines, they must take more care to prevent animal illness and disease before it happens.