More and more people are trying to avoid cruel factory farms. Many are starting to choose “humane” milk and dairy. But how do you know if a product is really cruelty-free? What do all the labels mean? Can “happy milk” from “happy cows” be real?
The best cruelty-free certifications for milk products are Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and Certified Humane. But even with these labels, some cruel practices are allowed on dairy farms—including castration without pain relief and the traumatic separation of mother and calf.
After reading this post, you’ll have a clear idea of what these different labels mean. You’ll also learn about a shocking investigation of real conditions found on an organic dairy farm. Then you can make an informed decision about what to buy or not buy.
How Much Better is “Humane Milk” than Factory Farmed Milk?
Outrage about cruel practices on factory farms is growing.
And a lot of people are wondering if they need to boycott animal products entirely, or just switch to “humane” versions.
Indeed, no U.S. federal law protects farmed animals on factory farms. This has led to animal welfare standards getting lower and lower over time, as farmers focus on maximizing profit. (source)
There are many labels and certification programs that try to ensure animal welfare on farms. Some of these labels do provide improvements. I’ll lay out the best certifications later in this post. (click to skip ahead)
But even when the best standards are met… some parts of the dairy industry are inherently exploitative. Plus, there is evidence of cruelty even on some “organic” dairy farms.
So before we get to specific labels, let’s cover these examples of cruelty even in “humane” dairy.
Inherent Exploitation in Dairy Farming
There are certain aspects of dairy farming that can arguably never be “humane” or “cruelty-free.” That’s because these are necessary steps to any milk production for human consumption.
Let’s look at a few of these.
1. Forced Impregnation
The dairy industry is dependent on the forced impregnation of cows.
Without pregnancy and birth, there is no milk.
Female cows are typically impregnated at 12-14 months old, just after they’ve hit puberty.
For this, a restraining apparatus holds a female cow. Then a person typically inserts their arm into the cow’s rectum to position the uterus.
Once they’ve done this, an instrument is forced into her vagina to inseminate her with semen.
The semen of bulls is typically collected in a strange, unnatural way, too. Castrated males are used as “stand-ins” for females. This is because the bodies of female cows can’t stand the stress of being repeatedly mounted by bulls.
Every female cow lives through an endless cycle of forced impregnation, pregnancy, birth, lactation, a brief drying off period, and then impregnation again.
Eventually, they’re deemed “spent” and sent to the slaughterhouse. (source)
The simple reality is that we can never get “consent” from any nonhuman animal, including from cows. Even when animals seem willing to exchange with us, or when we “treat them well”… there’s never informed consent because the level of communication is so low.
For many feminists, this issue is especially moving. Even non-vegan feminists have written op-eds lamenting how dairy is an issue of female bodies being exploited and oppressed.
In the organic dairy investigation I share below, they found examples of violent artificial insemination occuring. But even without the “violent” aspect, it would still be an un-consenting situation. I’ve written more on this here.
2. Separation of Mother and Calf
Research has shown that the mother-child bond isn’t exclusive to humans. At any dairy farm, there are separations of mother cows and their baby calves.
This may happen at different times and in different ways. But in all cases, the calf is taken away, and the mother gets milked for the profit of someone else.
To me, this is the saddest thing in all of animal agriculture. And yes, it happens on organic and “humane” dairy farms, too.
3. Premature Death of Male Calves for Veal
The success of the veal industry is dependent on the dairy industry. It’s even considered a part of the dairy industry. (source)
The male calves killed for veal are originally born due to the needed pregnancies for dairy farming.
When a cow births a calf, it can either be male or female. If it’s female, it’ll be raised until it’s ready for impregnation, and then enter the dairy cycle, like its mother.
For male calves, a small percentage stay on the farm to be raised for semen production. The rest are either slaughtered and processed as “bob veal” immediately… or raised for 16-18 weeks to be killed and sold as “milk-fed,” “special-fed,” “formula-fed,” or “humane” veal.
Some of the “humane” labels below may require calves to be raised to an older age before slaughter. Some require calves have more space to live. Or that they live in a pen with other calves and a surrogate mother, as opposed to living in a crate alone.
But most humane standards don’t focus much on veal.
4. Confinement of Cows
Cows on dairy farms are confined all their lives.
Sometimes, labels like “Grass Fed” can be misleading in this regard. Just because a cow is fed with grass, that doesn’t necessarily mean it lives most of its life outdoors. They can be fed with grass indoors, and it still counts as “Grass Fed.”
At some “humane” farms, cows may actually have more space to live and interact. They may have outdoor access, or get to live their whole lives outside.
But it’s still typically a lot less area than a cow could roam in a naturally lived life.
5. Premature Death of All Cows at The Slaughterhouse
Unfortunately, all dairy cows, no matter how humane their life has been, are killed once they’re considered “spent.”
This is usually when they’re about five years old. This is still very young, as cows naturally live into their 20s. (source)
But after a few cycles of pregnancy, birth, and lactation, all dairy cows are “spent.” At this point, disease and reproductive problems are common. So they are killed, usually in terrifying slaughterhouses, in a process not guaranteed to be painless.
Click here to watch one of the more emotional videos I’ve seen of cows waiting in line to be killed at a slaughterhouse. This is NOT a bloody or gory video… but it’s very emotional because you can clearly see this cow is scared and doesn’t want to go.
This inevitable end result of premature death is routine on “humane” dairy farms, too—not just factory farms.
Evidence of Cruelty at an Organic Dairy Farm
Besides the exploitative aspects above, many cows suffer additional cruelty from workers or specific practices.
The most significant evidence of this at a “humane” dairy farm was the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) investigation. This investigation exposed cruelty at Natural Prairie Dairy in Channing, Texas, in 2019.
This was the first cruelty investigation into an organic dairy in the U.S. You can watch footage from the investigation here.
This investigation found:
- Repeated violent artificial insemination.
- Painful force-feeding of cows suffering from infections and lameness who wouldn’t eat.
- Caging of newborn calves for up to three months.
- Overcrowded, feces-ridden indoor housing.
It also uncovered incidents of cows being:
- Stabbed with screwdrivers
- Beaten with shovels
- Kicked and dragged, including by the head, when they were too weak to stand
- Painful “flaming” of cows that had just given birth
- At least one cow that tried fleeing workers while giving birth.
Some humane labels can improve the lives of cows on dairy farms… but this investigation showed that cruelty to animals can still happen at “organic” farms.
I share this to emphasize the importance of not just trusting all “humane” labels. Many of them are just marketing terms—not actual, audited certifications.
So What Do All These Labels Mean?
So let’s say you’re willing to take a chance with “humane” dairy products. What labels or certifications will give you the best chance of getting actually cruelty-free cheese or milk?
There are two main types of standards you’ll see on “humane” milk and dairy products:
- USDA approved standards like “grass-fed,” “organic,” or “humanely raised.”
- Independent certification programs like Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane.
The independent certification programs generally provide stronger proof of animal welfare. A lot of the USDA terms are sloppy and defined by the farms themselves.
But let’s cover all these potential kinds of labels—so you know which ones are bogus and which are good.
USDA Approved Standards
As mentioned above, most USDA approved standards are defined by dairy producers.
Dairy farmers define the standards, then submit documentation as proof that they’re adhering to their self-defined standard. They then place a clarifying description (or a web link with clarification) of the term on product packaging. (source, source)
That is usually all that’s required.
This means there is very little accountability about what is written is on a product label. With the possible exception of USDA Organic, these are essentially just marketing terms.
Let’s cover some of the terms you may see on milk products. These are ranked from most useful to least useful.
The USDA Organic standard is one of the few USDA terms with a legal U.S. definition specifying how a product is made, what’s in it, and animal welfare.
So, there’s a better chance of farmers actually adhering to it.
Conditions of USDA Organic dairy:
- Animals are only fed organic grass or grain with no by-products
- Growth hormones and antibiotics are prohibited
- Animals must be allowed to graze on pasture for 120+ days per year
- Living conditions must include shade, shelter, an exercise area, fresh air, clean drinking water, direct sunlight, and clean and dry bedding at a suitable temperature
The downside? Space requirements lack definition. And many animal welfare issues aren’t addressed. Mutilations, castration without pain relief, inhumane transport, and slaughterhouse procedures aren’t accounted for. (source, source)
Some dairy farmers also complain that the rigid ban on antibiotics actually worsens animal welfare. If a cow gets sick, they can’t be given antibiotics, even in that case—so they must be sold to a conventional farm with likely worse conditions.
The verdict: There are some strong benefits to the USDA Organic standard. But if you’re looking for a truly humane product, it may not be enough. For the best assurance, look for independent certifications like AWA below.
2. Raised with Care, Sustainably Raised, or Humanely Raised
This category would also include terms like: Pasture-Raised, Raised with Environmental Stewardship, Pasture Fed, Pasture Grown, Meadow Raised, and Naturally Raised.
These terms could definitely provide some improved welfare conditions for dairy cows. But definitions vary for each term. So unless you check with the USDA for the specific term you’ve found, it’s hard to know what it means. (source, source)
3. Hormone-Free, rBGH-free, rBST-free, or No Hormones Added
These mean the cows didn’t get artificial hormones to increase their milk production. This is good for the cow’s health (and yours). But these terms don’t tell us anything else about the actual conditions on the farm. (source)
4. Grass-Fed, Forage Fed, or Vegetarian Feed
Under this standard, weaned animals must only be fed grass, forbs, or pre-grains.
But animals can actually be fed this grass indoors, in factory farm conditions—with no consideration of other welfare concerns. Plus, they can be switched to eating grain the day before they’re killed to fatten them up—and still qualify as Grass-Fed.
The only welfare benefit to this label is that cows fed this diet are less likely to suffer from gastrointestinal disorders and liver abscesses, compared to cows on regular factory farm diets. (source, source)
Many consumers would assume that this has something to do with animal welfare, particularly their living conditions. But this label has nothing to do with the treatment of cows.
6. Free-Range or Free-Roaming
This one is almost a trick… This isn’t even a term looked at by the USDA for dairy. It’s meant for chickens and eggs. So, if you see it on dairy products, you know it’s questionable, at best! (source)
Now lets move onto the independent certification programs—some of those are much better.
Independent Certification Programs
You may see many different animal welfare certifications out there. But there are only a couple that are taken seriously as actually meaningful.
Here are the top independent certification programs to look for:
- The Best: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) — Consumer Reports ranks AWA as “Excellent” in all categories, and has said it’s the only “highly meaningful” label for farm animal welfare, outdoor access, and sustainability.
- Second Best: Certified Humane (CH) — Endorsed by 70+ animal welfare orgs. Consumer Reports ranks CH as “Very Good” (only 1 level below “Excellent”) for dairy cow welfare.
- Coming Soon: GAP-certified — GAP currently certifies meat products, but they’re working on standards for dairy cows, too.
Below, I’ve included some pros and cons for each of these programs—plus details on their specific animal welfare standards.
1. Animal Welfare Approved (AWA)
The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification is run by the non-profit A Greener World.
AWA is one of the fastest-growing food certification programs in the U.S.
Pros of AWA:
- AWA uses one set standard, making it simple to know what farms are doing or not doing. They then give additional recommendations that a farm can choose to put in place or not. (source)
- Third-party auditors check every farm for certification at least once per year. (source)
- AWA only certifies independent farms. This is because research shows independent farms have the most potential for animal welfare. (source)
- AWA has standards for all common farm animals, including dairy cattle, dairy sheep, and dairy goats.
AWA standards for dairy cows include:
- Cows are raised outdoors on pasture or range for their whole lives.
- Cows have shelter in case of emergencies or night-time predators.
- Tie stalls are only use for milking (or feeding immediately before or after milking).
- Cows are fed a varied, well-balanced, and nutritious diet appropriate to their age. At least 70% must come from roughage/forage after weaning.
- Calves aren’t weaned before six weeks, and the separation of mother and calf is designed to cause as little stress as possible.
- Growth hormones and antibiotics are prohibited.
- Many common mutilations are prohibited.
- Dual production—where a farm operates both “humane” and factory farm facilities—is prohibited. Farms must commit to humane production under AWA standards.
AWA enforces animal welfare during production, transport, and slaughter. Compared to other standards, it provides the most comprehensive coverage of animal welfare concerns.
Downsides of AWA:
- Some mutilations are still permitted. Cattle can still be castrated without pain relief. (source)
- All dairy farms still have inherent exploitation, separation of mother and calf, and the potential for more cruelty (even if not routine).
The verdict: All in all, AWA seems like the best independent certification program for humane milk and dairy.
2. Certified Humane
The nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care operates the Certified Humane program.
It’s based on RSPCA guidelines, scientific research, and other guidelines for animal care. (source)
Keep in mind, this is not the same as “American Humane Certified,” which is definitely not recommended by animal advocates.
Pros of Certified Humane:
For dairy cows, this includes:
- Outdoor access to green pastures for grazing every day.
- Cows only come into the barn twice per day for milking.
- Improved living conditions.
- Growth hormones are prohibited.
- Antibiotics are only permitted for medical treatment of individual animals. (source)
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) believes “Certified Humane” offers important standards in bedding, methods of slaughter, stocking density, and pain relief. (source)
Plus, Certified Humane has a very low risk of conflict of interest between the program’s founders/directors and the farms they certify.
Cons of Certified Humane:
- They only audit a sample of 10% of farms within groups seeking certification. Once those samples pass, all farms in the group are certified.
- They use internal auditors, rather than third-party auditors. Some see potential transparency or bias issues with that.
- Audits are less regular than with other programs.
The verdict: Auditing is less thorough and some welfare concerns are not considered—but Certified Humane is still a significant positive step toward humane dairy.
Coming Soon: GAP-Certified Milk
This is another certification to look for in the future. But Global Animal Partnership (GAP) currently only puts their certification on meat products.
GAP is only just now developing a set of standards for dairy. So we don’t have specific standards we can refer to yet.
But there’s reason to believe it’ll be at least a somewhat useful certification.
GAP uses a five-step, tiered program to rate animal welfare. Third-party auditors check every farm (not just a sampling), every 15-months, in all four seasons.
However, potential conflicts of interest do exist between GAP and some companies (including Whole Foods Market).
The verdict: Depending on the standards they develop for dairy cows, a high GAP ranking may be useful. But the multiple tier levels may also mean the lowest tiers are still not great.
Best Brands for Cruelty-Free Dairy Products
As explained above, dairy is arguably never 100% cruelty-free… Even the best certification programs allow castration of cattle without pain relief. (source)
That said, if you’re buying dairy, what are the best possible brands to ensure animal welfare?
Below are lists of dairy brands certified as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) or Certified Humane (CH). These are the best two certification programs. Since AWA is better, I’ve listed AWA-certified brands at the top of each list.
These brands were sourced from this larger guide made by the ASPCA. That guide also includes links and instructions for where you can buy each of these brands.
Cruelty-Free Milk Brands
Here are the milk brands that have been certified Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) or Certified Humane (CH).
- Working Cows Dairy (AWA)
- Hart Dairy (CH)
- Organic Pastures (CH)
- Summer Hill Goat Dairy (CH)
Cruelty-Free Cheese Brands
Here are cheese brands that have been certified Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) or Certified Humane (CH).
- Apple Valley Creamery (AWA)
- Ludwig Farmstead Creamery (AWA)
- North Country Creamery (AWA)
- Truly Grass-Fed Cheddar Cheese (AWA)
- Organic Pastures (CH)
- Shelburne Farms (CH)
- Blue Ledge Farm (AWA)
- Fraga Farm (AWA)
- Lazy Lady Farm (AWA)
- Prodigal Farm (AWA)
- Shamrock Artisan Goat Cheese (AWA)
- Toluma Farms (AWA)
- Black Mesa Ranch (CH)
- Redwood Hill (CH)
- Surfing Goat Dairy (CH)
- Green Dirt Farms (AWA)
- Green Valley Organics (CH)
Other Dairy Products
Here are the brands of butter, yogurt, and other dairy products that have been certified Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) or Certified Humane (CH).
- Truly Grass-Fed (AWA)
- Organic Pastures (CH)
- White Oak Pastures (CH) [Beef Tallow Butter—Not Vegetarian]
- Green Valley Organics (CH)
- Redwood Hill Creamery (CH)
- Organic Pastures (CH)
Mayonnaise and Ranch Dressing:
- Sir Kensington’s (CH)
Again, the ASPCA page includes links to where you can buy each of these brands.
So, Is “Cruelty-Free” Milk and Cheese Really Humane?
Independent certification programs can improve the lives of dairy cows. But it’s hard to know for sure that any farm is 100% cruelty-free.
And from a vegan perspective, there’s inherent exploitation on all dairy farms.
More and more people are opting to forgo dairy altogether. Instead, they’ve switched to plant-based milk and cheese.
The plant-based dairy market is booming. Milk alternatives alone are projected to hit $35 billion USD by 2026. This is not only for ethical reasons, but environmental and health reasons, too.
Read my post on “6 Reasons Why Vegans Don’t Eat Dairy” for more on that.
But if you do choose to buy animal-based milk and cheese, some choices are more humane than others.
If you buy dairy, choose Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane products. USDA Organic comes in third place. All three of these standards require actual audits—and AWA and CH are actually designed by animal welfare organizations.
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