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

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"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, eathumane.org. 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."

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