If you care about animal cruelty, shopping for meat and dairy is a harrowing experience. I know from personal experience: Going shopping is, for me, a recipe for angst, as I can't really tell how I can buy stuff that fits with my values. Does the fancy organic milk really come from happier cows than the generic supermarket brand? Should I stop buying milk entirely? Are the chickens that produce "cage-free" eggs treated better?
To get some real answers to these questions, I got in touch with a number of experts on food and animals. They told me that eating ethically isn't easy. But they also offered a few simple tricks that help minimize the amount of cruelty in your diet.
Some of them involve just knowing what labels to look for; "cage-free" eggs, for example, are actually pretty good. Some of them might surprise you — eating at McDonald's, for instance, is often better for animals than eating at a trendy high-end restaurant offering locally sourced ingredients.
So here are seven ways to help animals — and, in some cases, your bank account — through your food choices.
1) Look for "animal welfare approved" and Global Animal Partnership labels
The biggest barrier to shopping ethically is the sheer number of labels people slap on different products.
"There's a dizzying array of labels," Paul Shapiro, the vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society, tells me. "Some of them have meaning, some of them don't, and some are in the middle."
The highest standard, according to Shapiro, is set by the "animal welfare approved" label. To qualify for this label, producers cannot use cages and crates, must allow animals to engage in natural behaviors like stretching their wings, and cannot feed them growth hormones or subtherapeutic antibiotics. It's independently verified, which means farms would have trouble cheating.
Unfortunately, this label is rare. "The standards are so high that it is sold in very few supermarkets," he explains. "It's the kind of thing you look for when you're going to a farmers market, not a supermarket."
For people who prefer grocery stores to farmers markets, Shapiro recommends looking for the Global Animal Partnership label. It uses a five-step rating system for animal products, ranging from 1 (no cages or crowding) to 5+ (animals live their whole lives on one animal-friendly farm). Even a 1, however, means the animals are treated better than your ordinary factory-farmed cow or chicken.
"Among the third-party-audited programs, that program is the most reputable," Shapiro says. You can find products with this label at Whole Foods and some other smaller stores; check out the website for a complete list of stores and brands that participate.
2) Don't get tricked by meaningless labels like "natural" or "organic"
Some labels drive up the price of your goods without necessarily improving animal welfare. The worst offender here is the "natural" label. The USDA definition of "natural" is "minimally processed" — basically any fresh food qualifies under that definition, even if it comes from a particularly cruel or environmentally destructive farm.
"Ignore any label or claim that says 'natural,'" explains Jayson Lusk, an economist at Oklahoma State University who studies food markets and animal welfare. "That's just meaningless."
The "organic" label is more complicated. Organic labels do have some minimal animal welfare requirements, so it can be a little better than something that's totally unlabeled. On the other hand, organic also has a number of other requirements — for instance, any grain the animals eat must also be organic — that drive up the price without necessarily benefiting animals.
So Lusk and Shapiro both say price-conscious consumers should eschew organic labels in favor of ones that are more directly focused on animal welfare.
"The animal doesn't care if it's eating organic corn or not," Lusk says. "From my perspective, that adds a lot of cost with little benefit."
3) For eggs, buy cage-free
If you can't find any products bearing a general label like "animal welfare approved," you can look for ones that are specific to certain kinds of products. One of the hardest products to do that for, somewhat surprisingly, is eggs.
"Basically, nine out of 10 egg cartons sold in our country today come from chickens that are crammed into cages where they can barely move their whole lives," Shapiro says. "It's an obscene form of animal cruelty; if the victims were dogs and cats, it would be felony in most states."
The best way to avoid contributing to this is to buy eggs with the "cage-free" label. For reasons that Vox's Dylan Matthews has explained, avoid other labels like "free-range" and "organic."
"Cage-free does not mean cruelty-free, but it does mean a substantial improvement," Shapiro says. "Going to cage-free automatically puts you in the top 10 percent, as far as animal welfare is concerned."
The problem is that cage-free eggs can be a bit pricey. Farms started caging chickens for a reason: It is much cheaper to confine chickens in small areas than to purchase the land required to let them roam more freely. Lusk reviewed grocery checkout scanner data and found that cage-free eggs were 50 to 70 percent more expensive.
Now, eggs are in general not that expensive. A dozen standard eggs cost about $2.32, so even a 70 percent increase amounts to an extra $1.62 per carton. If you buy a carton a week, that's an extra $84 per year — a pretty low price to pay for a much higher level of animal welfare.
However, if you're a huge egg consumer or on a very tight budget, that could end up being a problem. For these shoppers, Lusk recommends a middle-ground label: "enriched colony cage."
So-called "enriched" cages are twice as large as more conventional hen cages. They also allow access to necessities like lights and scratching areas. The fact that the chickens are still caged keeps the costs down; Lusk says these eggs are only 10 percent more expensive than standard eggs.
These cages are controversial, as many animal advocates see confinement as inherently cruel. However, some prominent animal welfare experts, like Colorado State's Temple Grandin, have endorsed them as a step up. So if you're on a tight budget and can't afford cage-free eggs, enriched colony cage eggs are probably the way to go.
4) For cow products, buy grass-fed
For dairy products that come from cows, the ideal label is "grass-fed." There are a number of different grass-fed labeling processes, but you should look especially for American Grassfed and Food Alliance labels on the stuff you buy.
These labels obviously cover cows' diets — the animals can only eat grass and other stuff they forage — but they also go well beyond that. The cows must be allowed access to pasture, and must also be able to do things that cows do naturally (grazing, for example). It's the highest cow-specific standard.
"Giving the cows access to pasture, as opposed to keeping them locked up on concrete or in a dirt feedlot, is a big improvement for the animals," Shapiro says.
Once again, however, this will add cost.
Lusk says that raising grass-fed cattle can easily double costs, because "there's going to be a lot of land and labor involved in those production systems."
This is a bit of a starker choice than you have with eggs, as there doesn't seem to be any type of compromise option like enriched colony cages. The label "grain-fed," for example, sounds similar to grass-fed but doesn't actually tell you anything about animal welfare.
5) Restaurants are mostly bad — even "local," "farm-to-table" places
Eating at a restaurant makes things even more complicated. At a grocery store, you get to pick the raw ingredients. At restaurants, by contrast, you simply get the finished product. There are no real government or private standards for small restaurants, which makes it virtually impossible to verify whether even the fanciest place cooks with ethically sourced animal products.
Shapiro says that hardly any restaurants disclose their animal welfare practices, and "virtually all of them are serving exclusively factory-farmed products."
You might think that the recent trend of "local" or "farm-to-table" restaurants would be better for animals, but you'd be wrong. These labels are mostly branding and have very little to do with whether restaurants are sourcing food ethically.
"Factory farms are all local to somewhere," as Shapiro pithily puts it. "Local, to be frank, is pretty irrelevant."
The total lack of auditing procedures means that restaurants can just flat-out lie to consumers.
"I remember reading a story recently about a farmer out in California," Lusk recalls, "who went to a restaurant that had the name of his farm on their menu. And he knows he doesn't sell to them!"
People who really want to eat out can, with some time and effort, verify these claims. If a restaurant has a "named local" farm partnership (as in Lusk's story), you can call the farm or even visit it in person to see how it treats its animals.
"If you know the farm where your food is coming from, you can visit in person and see how they do things," Dan Hicks, a philosopher at the American Association for the Advancement of Science who studies farm animals, writes in an email.
But that takes a lot of time and effort. And if the restaurant does check out, chances are it'll be costly. So if you're aiming to help animals and save money at the same time, skip the trip to latest hipster restaurant and cook your own meal.
6) Instead, eat at Chipotle or McDonald's
By contrast, a number of chain restaurants do have publicly announced standards for animal welfare standards. You can see a partial list at the Humane Society's website.
Of these, Chipotle is the best by far.
The chain certainly has its problems: Its decision to stop purchasing GMO ingredients is based on junk science, and may have contributed to a food poisoning outbreak in December. But its animal welfare practices are excellent.
In early 2015, Chipotle suspended the sale of carnitas — one of its flagship meat products — in one-third of its restaurants. The decision was made on pure animal welfare grounds. The chain had discovered that a major pork supplier was raising its pork in horrifically tiny cages, on top of "slatted metal floors that allow their waste to collect beneath them in liquefied pools." Chipotle chose to cut ties with this supplier, even though doing so required it to cease sales of a core product until a more ethical supplier could be found.
The carnitas suspension is emblematic of the company's across-the-board commitment to animals. "Chipotle has higher animal welfare standards than any of its competitors," Shapiro says.
McDonald's, surprisingly enough, also does pretty well by animals. In late 2015, the company announced a plan to move to 100 percent cage-free eggs within the next 10 years. The Humane Society's president, Wayne Pacelle, called it a "watershed moment" for the fight against caging hens.
"In a lot of cases, McDonald's has been one of the leaders in adopting animal welfare guidelines," Lusk says. "They were one of the first companies, 10 [or] 15 years ago, to adopt larger space requirements for egg-laying hens. And they did that well before any other major restaurant, and before even a lot of the egg industry."
To be clear, this is uncommon in the fast-food industry. While Lusk wouldn't name specific companies that neglected animal welfare, he was very clear that McDonald's was ahead of many competitors.
7) The single best thing you can do for animals and your wallet: Eat less meat
Ultimately, however, the best way to save money and help animals is the simplest: Eat less meat.
While the labels we've been discussing are good, the overwhelming majority of meat products in America are still unlabeled. "If you look at a scanner data set," Lusk says, "less than 2 percent advertise anything related to animal welfare."
That's because most meat and dairy comes from animals raised in pretty horrific conditions, and so could never pass muster under any serious labeling system. According to Shapiro, 99 percent of the animal products sold in the US come from factory farms.
So if you really object to factory farming, you should probably just stop eating animal products. If that's not realistic for you (and it isn't for a lot of people), then simply cutting down on the amount of meat and dairy you eat could be good.
This isn't just good for animals; it's also helpful for your bank account.
"The studies are very clear: If you really want to save money, eating more plant-based foods is the way," Shapiro says.
On average, plant-based products are cheaper on a per-calorie basis than animal-based ones. And when you avoid eating meat, eggs, and dairy products, you reduce your contribution to animal cruelty in those industries.
"One thing a lot of people say is, 'This is hard, there are a lot of trade-offs, no system is perfect,'" Lusk explains. "'Therefore, I'm just going to not eat as much meat.'"