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Humane groceries: Can you trust labels like 'cage free'?

Activists are trying to help consumers find the most animal-friendly products – and the stores that sell them.

By Dan FritzContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 2008

If you regularly buy "cage free" eggs instead of the conventional kind, you're off to a good start in supporting the welfare of farm animals, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals. The same goes for buying "free range" poultry and "grass fed" dairy and meat, although those products may be harder to find, a recent survey by the WSPA concludes. Even scarcer: meat, dairy, and eggs verified by an independent third party as humanely raised.

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Marketers have caught on to the demand for humanely raised foods, using labels such as "cage free," "no antibiotics used," and "no hormones administered." The trouble with these labels is that, even if the claims are substantiated, they only cover one aspect of production. In some cases, labels are redundant: "No hormones administered" is not necessary on poultry, for example, since hormones are prohibited in poultry production.

In an effort to clear up the confusion that can surround various humane claims on foods, WSPA first categorized different labels as either "good," "better," or "best" and then surveyed their availability in the nation's top 23 supermarket chains. The greatest selection was found at Whole Foods, while one of that store's competitors, Trader Joe's, tied for ninth place out of the 23 chains. (See chart, below.)

"It was very interesting, even for our staff," notes Sharanya Prasad, program officer of the WSPA-USA, "like in the case of Trader Joe's, where we didn't find so many options, whereas we were quite surprised that we found options in some of the other chains."

Consumers can sign petitions to demand more humane choices on WSPA's website, The subject of the current petition is Trader Joe's. The company declined to comment.

"A majority of the public indicate that they want to be able to make that choice [to buy humanely raised foods], and decisions such as that can make a profound impact on the lives of animals that are raised for food," says Ms. Prasad, citing two 2007 opinion surveys – one conducted by WSPA and one by Oklahoma State University, showing that 68 percent and 49 percent of respondents, respectively, felt concern for farm animal welfare.

Some animal scientists aver that, in general, the animal-agriculture industry is not intentionally inhumane.

"You see these things like PETA shows, with the dairy cows at the slaughterhouse and the pigs being kicked; that's not our standards," says Debbie Cherney, associate professor of animal science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Those are the bottom-feeders."

1. Whole Foods Market

2. Wegman's Food Markets

3.Ruddick Corp. (Harris Teeter)

4. H.E. Butt Grocery Co. (Central Market, HEB)

5. Kroger Co. (tie)

Publix Super Markets Inc. (tie)

7. Hy-Vee Food Stores Inc.

8. Meijer Inc.

9. Safeway Inc. (tie)

Trader Joe's Co. (tie)

Source: World Society for Protection of Animals