The government has regulations for the kinds of information that must be displayed on meat labels, but high-end supermarket chain Whole Foods Market says it's adding to the information available to consumers.

These labels will carry information -- not about nutrition -- but how the animals were raised before slaughter. Whole Foods says the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System is the signature program of the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit organization that facilitates and encourages continuous improvement in animal agriculture.

Independent, third-party certifiers audit farms and rate animal welfare practices and conditions using a tiered system that ranges from Step 1 (no crates, no cages, no crowding) to Step 5+ (animals spend their entire lives on one farm). The company says the system provides a way to engage and reward producers by promoting continuous improvement in farm animal welfare. For shoppers, the rating system provides a way to make more informed choices at the meat counter.

The five steps in the ranking system are:

  • Step 1: No cages, no crates, no crowding
  • Step 2: Enriched environment
  • Step 3: Enhanced outdoor access
  • Step 4: Pasture centered
  • Step 5: Animal centered; no physical alterations
  • Step 5+: Animal centered; entire life on the same farm

Third party certifiers

More than 1,200 farms and ranches providing the company's 291 U.S. locations with products have received Step certification through independent, third-party certifiers, Whole Foods said. Color-coded signs and stickers throughout Whole Foods Market meat departments identify these ratings.

"In my 20 years of working with ranchers and farmers, this is the largest commitment to improving farm animal welfare that I have seen," said Anne Malleau, global animal production and welfare coordinator for Whole Foods Market. "Producers need to meet approximately 100 requirements to get a Step 1 certification, so achieving the first level is a remarkable accomplishment. Whole Foods Market is able to adopt the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System thanks to the true partnerships we have with our producers who put just as much emphasis on the lives of their farm animals as they do on ensuring high-quality products."

All meat sold at Whole Foods Market must meet the company's strict quality standards, which require that animals be raised on a vegetarian diet without being administered antibiotics or added growth hormones. Step-rated options are now available at all U.S. Whole Foods Market stores and by May 9, all beef, pork and chicken carried in the fresh and pre-packaged cases will be rated according to 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating standards, the company said.