A Beginner's Guide to Shopping for Sustainable, Cruelty-Free Meat

There are lots of ways to buy better meat. These are our simplest tips to get started.

Illustration of woman at butcher's counter
Photo: Kaitlyn Collins/Dotdash-Meredith

Let's face it: Meat is complicated. If you've recently become concerned about animal cruelty, labor conditions, or the environmental impact of eating meat, it can feel somewhat overwhelming to figure out how to meaningfully improve the overall quality of the meat that you're buying. Sure, labels like "organic" are common — but just because a chicken was raised on organic feed doesn't mean it wasn't raised in confinement or processed in a plant that has abysmal labor practices. If you're trying to buy better, more responsibly farmed meat, you may need to branch outside of your usual supermarket. Here are five tips for sourcing healthier, more humanely raised meat products.

Buy Whole Animals or Less Familiar Cuts

This is one of the most important things to understand going in: Buying higher-quality meat is usually going to cost more. There's really no way around it. There are, however, ways to make this work even if you don't have an unlimited grocery budget.

The first is to buy whole animals wherever possible. If you are someone with a huge reach-in freezer and a large family, that might actually mean you buy a whole or half cow from a local farmer. Don't worry – the meat will come broken into familiar cuts and packaged into manageable amounts that you can freeze and use when you're ready. Many people opt to go in on buying a cow with another family or with friends in order to share the cost and the large amount of beef. These types of programs typically score you a better price than buying individual pieces of the meat would, they allow you to see where your meat is coming from, and they are a good way to support a local farmer.

If purchasing a whole cow feels like a bit much, try buying a whole chicken rather than just boneless, skinless breasts or thighs – the per-pound price will be cheaper, and you'll get to enjoy the glory of a whole roasted chicken. Another great option is to buy ground meat, which allows butchers and farmers to use up smaller pieces and scraps that can't be sold whole, making it a little less expensive.

Look For a Local Butcher You Trust

If you live in a city, you might be lucky enough to be close to a sustainable butcher shop. In the last 10 years, these types of local markets have popped up all over the country. They're typically smaller operations run by a team of people who have close relationships with the farmers they buy meat from, and who work to source notably high-quality products. Often, the meat they sell isn't going to be certified organic or have other labels you might see at a grocery store; these types of certifications can be pricey for small farmers to obtain, even if they do actually follow all of the required rules. Instead, the butcher's shop is working on the assumption that you trust them to bring you the best quality available in the area. If you find a spot that looks interesting, give them a call and ask them about their sourcing – they'll likely be excited to share their passion with you.

Check Out a Farmer's Market Near You

If there isn't a butcher's shop, there might be a cattle or poultry farmer at your local farmer's market. If there is, those animals were likely raised outside of factory farming settings, and it all but guarantees a much shorter supply chain than the national brands you'd find at a grocery store. Both of these facts tell you that the meat likely has a smaller carbon footprint, and you can enjoy the fact that you're putting money into your local economy. If you're not sure, ask the farmer about their farming practices.

Ask a Dairy Farmer

Even if there aren't any dedicated animal farmers at your market, you might be able to buy meat from a local dairy farmer or cheesemaker, many of whom raise some animals for meat in addition to the ones they milk. It's worth a regional search even if you can't find someone at your local farmer's market, because many of these farmers will sell bulk meat – half a dozen whole chickens or a broken-down half or whole pig that you can store in your freezer for a season or two.

Understand the Labels

If your only viable option is to shop at a grocery store, it's important to know what the different labels mean. Some stores, like Whole Foods or certain regional grocery stores, will carry meat from local farms, so keep an eye out for location-specific labels. Here's a quick breakdown of the other labels you might see while shopping:

USDA Certified Organic

In addition to animals being raised without things like hormones and antibiotics, USDA organic certification tells you that the animals have been raised with access to the outdoors.

Free Range

Free range and pasture-raised are two of the more malleable claims that you'll see. Animals must have access to the outdoors and the ability to move around, but neither of these terms have USDA standards – meaning, farms can define for themselves what these labels mean in their applications to the USDA. When you see these labels, it's a good idea to research the practices from individual companies.


There's a difference between grass-fed and 100% grass-fed labels, which is important to note, especially if you're looking for the nutritional benefits that come from grass-fed meat. You might see labels that say "grass fed 100 days prior to slaughter," which means the animals have eaten things other than grass in their lifetimes, but were finished with grass feeding. Labels like PCO Certified 100% Grass Fed, NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed, Certified Grassfed by AGW, and American Grassfed are all third-party labels (separate from the USDA) that have strict guidelines and can guarantee you're getting a fully grass-fed product.

Certified Humane

Certified Humane is one of the better, across-the-board certifications that you can find for your meat. It's offered by a nonprofit called Humane Farm Animal Care, and promises that animals are raised in comfortable settings by farmers who are trained in handling animals well. Farms and slaughterhouses have to follow anti-animal abuse policies, and practices like using growth hormones are not allowed. Certified Humane does not promise pasture-raising or grass-feeding animals.


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