The standards include some protections for cattle that are not typically employed in the cattle industry. Feedlots are managed to ensure that they are not excessively muddy, and each animal must have access at all times to a lying area that has bedding and is dry. Grazing, a natural behavior of beef cattle, isn’t mandatory. Cattle, which are prone to heatstroke, must have access to shade. Hot-iron branding isn't allowed. Castration is permitted, but measures to control pain must be taken during the process for calves older than 4 days.
The standards include some protections that go beyond what's typical in the dairy industry. Close confinement that restricts freedom of movement isn't allowed, and each animal must have access at all times to a lying area that has bedding and is dry. Most physical alterations, such as tail docking, aren't allowed. But the cows can be kept indoors continually; there is no requirement to provide access to an exercise lot or to put the animals on pasture, where they can engage in their natural grazing behaviors.
The indoor space requirements are only slightly different from industry standards, and are still minimal—the minimum space requirement is less than 1 square foot per bird—and the birds don't have to have access to the outdoors. Farms are encouraged to equip living spaces with perches and other features that allow chickens to engage in natural behaviors, but this isn't a condition for certification. Generally in the chicken industry, the lights in chicken houses are turned off only sporadically to allow the birds to sleep. This promotes growth but has negative health effects on the chickens. Under American Humane standards, the birds must get at least 4 hours of continual darkness; however, this is less than what some other animal welfare programs require. Indoor ammonia levels (produced by animal waste), which when high can cause illness, must be controlled. There are no legal humane slaughter standards for chickens, as there are for other animals, but the American Humane standards mandate them. Birds must be adequately stunned before slaughter and checked to make sure they are not still alive when they enter a tank of scalding water (which makes feather removal easier). A company-appointed "animal welfare officer" must be at the slaughterhouse to check for this and to perform other animal-welfare-related duties.
The criteria are only slightly different from industry standards. Small wire cages (called battery cages) can't be used but hens may be raised in other types of cages. The minimum space requirements are less than 1 square foot per bird. The birds must be given nest boxes and a place to roost—important for the welfare of laying hens. Indoor ammonia levels (produced by animal waste), which when high can cause illness, must be controlled. When hens are housed in crowded conditions and can't scratch and peck, they may become aggressive. Beak trimming is allowed to minimize the harm they can inflict on each other. Hens don't have to have access to a pasture, run, or other outdoor space. (However, an American Humane label plus a "pasture raised" or "free range" claim on a carton of eggs means the hens were required to have outdoor access.)
Breeder pigs (the female pigs that spend their lives in a cycle of pregnancy and nursing piglets) can be housed with their piglets for weeks in narrow, barren crates that are too small for them to turn around in. When the piglets are weaned, the "growing pigs" (those that will be slaughtered for meat when they reach market weight) are moved to group housing. There, the minimum space requirements in the standards are small and do not allow much freedom of movement. (A 250-pound growing pig has a space of just 9 square feet.) While outdoor access is not required, the farms do have to provide the pigs with materials, such as straw or wood chips, to engage in their natural rooting behaviors indoors. Routine tail docking is permitted. (Pigs can bite each other's tails when they are raised in crowded conditions or when they are bored.) Animal handlers on farms and in slaughterhouses may not use electric prods to get the animals to move during the transportation or slaughtering process (except as a last resort).
Although the standards don't meet all consumer expectations for humane animal treatment, the standards are highly verified. Each farm and slaughterhouse is inspected annually by an independent certifying agency using trained inspectors. However, not every requirement in the standards has to be met for the farm to pass inspection.
Consumer Reports takes a detailed look at the requirements, definitions, standards, and verification procedures behind food labeling seals and claims, and distills this information into CR ratings. Our goal is to inform and empower consumers so they can act to create demand for a healthier, safer food system.