Organic? Grass-Fed? All Natural? Locally Grown? Cage Free? Many of these claims are seen daily in supermarkets and restaurants without proper understanding of what they truly mean.
Unless the claim is being checked and certified by an independent third party, the integrity of a food label is often only as reliable as the person or company making it and applying for it to the official labeling approval institution. It’s now common for a company or farm supplier to simply have to sign an affidavit saying they are following certain rules. No other checks are made to ensure the company is telling the truth or if the rules are being followed or properly enforced.
The most trusted food labels will always incorporate independent third-party audits (previously approved by government organizations like USDA), where farms and suppliers are physically audited at least once a year according to set of published standards, providing the maximum integrity for any claims made to customers. Where possible, you are advised to seek out food label certifications that require third-party audits to ensure your expectations are fully met when it comes to animal welfare, environmental protection, and other food-related issues.
If you believe in a better sustainable world you must read and question your food label claims to make your part in improving the conditions of the food chain.
These are some of the most common food labels, as explained by “A Greener World” organization and their guide “Food Labels Exposed” – www.agreenerworld.org:
Free-range / Free-roaming: for poultry meat only
Definition by USDA food safety and inspection service: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
Although “free-range” is a positive sounding term with a legal definition, consumers should be aware that the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the size of the out- door area, the length of time the birds are required to have out- door access, and how this must be verified is not legally defined and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. Crowding is not uncommon. This claim provides no assurance of any other high-welfare welfare or environmental management practices. No independent third party verification required.
Fed a Vegetarian Diet
No legal or regulated definition required
Animals have been fed a diet free of animal products. This does not mean animals were raised outdoors on pasture or were fed a 100% grass-fed diet. No independent third party verification required.
No legal or regulated definition.
Sustainable farming is generally considered as farming that is socially just, high welfare, economically viable, and environmentally sound. The term is, however, unregulated and not legally defined. Sustainable agriculture was addressed by Congress in the 1990 farm Bill. Under that law:
“the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
Satisfy human food and fiber needs
Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
Sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
Definition by USDA:
“All products sold as “organic” must meet the USDA National Organic Program production and handling standards. Certification is mandatory for farmers selling more than $5,000 of organic products per year, and is verified by an accredited certifying agency.”
In general, organic production limits the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other inputs. However,
it does not strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access requirements—for example, confinement areas are permitted to fatten organic beef cattle—that can have significant welfare implications for animals.
For information about the National organic program and use of the term “organic” on labels, refer to these factsheets from the USDA Agricultural Marketing service:
organic food standards and labels: The facts labeling and Marketing information
Angus/Certified Angus Beef
No legal or regulated definition.
The American Angus Association has registered a definition of “Angus” beef with the USDA that requires the animal to have 50% Angus genetics or a predominantly (51%) black coat or hide. Animal must be under 30 months at slaughter and must meet additional meat quality requirements. There are, however, no management or welfare requirements relating to how cattle are raised. The terms “Angus Beef” and “Black Angus Beef” are also commonly used but are even less regulated.
Cage Free: for eggs/laying hens No legal or regulated definition.
As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage free” are raised without using cages, but still almost always live inside large barns or warehouses, often with many thousands of other birds. This term does not explain if the birds have any access to the outside, whether any outside area was pasture or a bare lot, or if they were raised entirely indoors in overcrowded conditions. Beak cutting is permitted to prevent feather pecking. No verification required by an independent third party unless eggs are also covered by an additional claim, such as Certified Humane.
i. definition by USDA: “100% of the diet of grassfed animals consists of freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months or drought conditions.”
This term refers only to the diet of cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. It does not indicate if an animal was given antibiotics or hormones. The USDA definition goes on to state that “if for environmental or health of the animal reasons supplementation can be used if the producer logs the type and amount.” in other words, outside of the growing season cattle could be kept off pasture on non-vegetated (dirt) lots and fed harvested forage and supplements, antibiotics, and synthetic hormones and still bear the USDA grassfed label.
Other independent third-party grassfed certifications exist that verify cattle are raised on a 100% forage diet, on pasture without confinement, and with no routine antibiotics or added hormones.
Definition by USDA food safety and inspection service: “Kosher” may be used only on the labels of meat and poultry products prepared under Rabbinical supervision.”
For meat to bear the “Kosher” label animals must be slaughtered without being pre-stunned.
Definition by USDA food safety and inspection service: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as: no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).”
As defined by the USDA, the term applies only to how meat is processed after slaughter. often found on meat and livestock product labels, this commonly used term does not refer in any way to how animals are raised, so the farming system may have involved feedlot and confinement systems, tail docking and other mutilations, or the routine use of antibiotics, for example. No independent third party verification required.
Source: Food Labels Exposed –
www.agreenerworld.org – Look for downloadable guide