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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.

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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.

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.)

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