Get Schooled on Labels


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Here is a great list of commonly found food labels regulated by the USDA:

What is Organic?

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Other Labels

There are other voluntary labels for livestock products, such as meat and eggs. Animal raising claims must be truthful and not misleading. USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service verifies the truthfulness of these claims:

Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.
  • Sounds like the best option in terms of animal welfare through the USDA.
Cage-free. This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.
  • Cage-free does not mean the animal is frolicking around in nature
Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.
  • I hate this label. It means nothing outside of meat, poultry and eggs (and even then it’s flimsy) and tricks people into thinking the product is good for them.
Grass-fed. Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic.
  • Didn’t know this about the antibiotics, hormones and pesticides. Grass is good, but grass + organic is better.
Pasture-raised. Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products.
  • Makes sense. A ‘pasture’ could be interpreted various ways, I guess.
Humane. Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.
  • Really!?
 No added hormones. A similar claim includes “Raised without Hormones.” Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat.
  • I wonder what the reasoning for allowing it in beef is.


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I was surprised that USDA does not regulate Humane labels. However there are other, well respected organizations that do – like Certified Humane.
I like Certified Humane because they seem pretty thorough:
  • The standards cover the animals from birth through slaughter. Slaughter facilities are inspected as well as the farms and ranches.
  • Food additives such as antibiotics, hormones, growth promoters and animal byproducts are prohibited;
  • Cages, crates, and tie stalls are prohibited; the animals must be free to move and not be confined. This means that chickens must be able to flap their wings and dust bathe, pigs have space to move around and root, and other requirements that mandate that all animals must be able to exhibit natural behaviors;
  • All animals must have sufficient protection from weather elements and live in an environment that promotes well-being. Cows, sheep, and goats must have daily access to pasture;
  • Managers and caretakers must be thoroughly trained, skilled, and competent in animal husbandry and welfare, and have good working knowledge of their system and the species of livestock in their care


2 Comments on “Get Schooled on Labels

  1. Organic does not mean what people think it does any longer either. See the Agriculture Act Congress passed in 2003 without any fanfare eliminating 90% of what organic meant. Also note the companies that began to immediately “become” organic after this bastardization of the term.


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