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What to Know (and Ask!) When Buying Meat at the Farmers’ Market

You'll shop better once you know this.

Photography by: Courtesy of Karen Kristian and J

When it comes to shopping at the greenmarket, many of us already know what to ask about produce, jams, and baked goods. But what about meats, dairy, and other animal byproducts? The stakes are not only higher here, but with terms like "hormone-free" and "all-natural" floating around, it can be hard to know how animals are raised and cared for, and how that may impact the products we purchase.


“There’s a perception that asking your farmers too many questions -- especially about how animals were treated -- will make you an annoying customer, but that’s not the case!” says Daisy Freund, director of Farm Animal Welfare at the ASPCA. Here, Freund breaks down what's important and gives tips on what to ask before you buy.

Photography by: Bryan Gardner

What exactly does “animal welfare” mean? 

Like domestic animals, farm animals have physical, natural, and emotional needs that must be met. Animals that meet these high-welfare standards are raised in healthy living conditions where they can eat when they are hungry, roam as they please, and have access to enrichment.


What does it mean when a farm is “Welfare Certified”? 

There are three independently audited welfare certification programs that ensure farms are held accountable and comply with various welfare standards, like proper air and light quality for animals. Farms can be Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or meet the Global Animal Partnership’s (GAP) 5-Step Program.


Often you will see GAP and Certified Humane products at larger stores like Whole Foods. At farmers’ markets, since many of the farms are smaller and pasture-based, you will most likely find Animal Welfare Approved products. This means the animals have been raised in high-quality pastures with enrichments, like perches for egg-laying hens.


(LEARN: What To Ask Before Buying Eggs)
Photography by: Ditte Isager

How do I know if something is Welfare Certified? 

These products should be labeled, or the farmers will have a seal or separate banner. If not, you can always ask them! The ASPCA also lists all certified farmers by state, including both smaller farms as well as larger brands you may see at grocery stores


Is it always better if animals are raised outdoors? 

Often, especially on larger factory farms, the issue of indoors versus outdoors isn’t the primary problem. Indoor conditions can be spacious, but on industrial farms they often come with a lot of unhealthy caging and confinement. However, there is a usually a significant jump in animals' welfare when they are raised outdoors. Here, they have sun on their backs, fresh air to breath, natural lighting and can roam and behave in their natural environments!


(READ: What Exactly "Sustainable Food" Means)
Photography by: Hans Gissinger

What should I know about other labels like “all-natural” and “hormone-free”?

“All-natural” does not actually mean anything in terms of farm animals’ welfare. “Hormone-free” is also pretty meaningless when it comes to pork and chicken because pigs and chickens cannot actually be given hormones by law. Many labels on food are not backed or monitored. It’s important to look for certain certifications, because these require physical farm audits. 


What are some things I can ask to ensure I’m buying higher-welfare meat, eggs, and dairy?

You should ask if a farm has any animal welfare certifications. If your favorite farms are not certified, you can encourage them to consider it! Also, ask if animals have been raised indoors or outdoors on the farm. Ideally, animals spend a majority of their time on pastures or have daily access to the outdoors. Lastly, ask if antibiotics are used when raising the animals. Responsible antibiotic use should be limited to healing sick animals, not to promote faster growth.