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The question

Your column about eating less meat got me reading about the terrible things that go on with factory farming. I'm not prepared to become vegetarian or vegan yet, but I want the meat I eat to be ethically raised. With all the terms and labels out there, what are my best options?

The answer

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Whether from books like Diet for a New America, films like Food Inc., Internet videos like The Meatrix or The Simpsons episode when Lisa becomes vegetarian, most of us have heard horror stories about modern meat production. Livestock animals being overcrowded in cages, pens and transport trucks, prevented from moving or behaving naturally and killed in factory-like slaughterhouses remind us why most of us are happily distanced from the process of cow to burger, pig to bacon, or chicken to nugget.

Eating no meat or animal products at all is the most obvious, clear-cut and (as our vegetarian friends keep telling us) easy way to avoid animal cruelty, as well as environmental and human health issues – especially since none of the ethical-meat labels (excluding kosher) include specific standards or monitoring for transport or slaughter.

Alternatively, buy your meat directly from a farm whose practices you trust, shopping at farmers markets or visiting the farm yourself. This is also a great way to build your community's food security and support the local economy.

If your local butcher, grocer or mega-mart is your preferred source, you can push for change. In fact, the University of British Columbia's David Fraser – a world-renowned expert in animal-welfare science – puts the onus on meat-eating consumers to improve conditions for the animals they eat.

The problems of factory-farmed meat arose from a major drop in the prices paid to livestock farmers over the past few decades, Dr. Fraser says, and the low and unpredictable profits forced them to cut costs to survive financially: "The key problem is not the erosion of animal-care values by producers, as much as the values of consumers, expressed through their purchasing habits." In other words, if you care about the animals, put your money where your heart is.

Start by looking for a label that guarantees high ethical standards and regular monitoring. "B.C. SPCA-certified" has the strictest criteria, including minimum space allowances for animals, access to the outdoors and bans on some of the harsher practices. Canadian "Certified Organic" has similar criteria, with the addition of GMO- and pesticide-free feed, and prohibiting the use of antibiotics and hormonal treatments (except when medically required in an otherwise organic environment). "Certified Local Sustainable," or Local Food Plus, adds criteria on labour practices, native habitat protection and on-farm energy use to animal-welfare requirements.

The terms "free-run" (uncaged, indoors), "free-range" (uncaged, with some access to outdoors), "grass-fed" and "pasture-raised" are positive notions, but don't come with any official certification or monitoring.

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The options are out there, so if you can't bear to quit meat "cold turkey," you can at least start with incremental changes, making life better for the animals and the farmers who raise them.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at and on Twitter. Send questions to .

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