Food Labeling Truths Revealed

Author Photo
By Suzanne Cox | Oct 7, 2014

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A summer barley crop waves in the bright sunshine.
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Organic heirloom tomatoes deliver on taste and safety.
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Look for the logo of the USDA’s National Organic Program.
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Organic pastures are essential for labeling beef as organic.
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If the term “grassfed” is used, the consumer may need to do further research as to the guidelines used by the producer for this label.
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Caged and crowded conditions don’t fit any of the National Organic Program’s guidelines.
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While a flock kept in a mobile enclosure, or “chicken tractor,” can be sold under the label of “pasture raised.”
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Free-range chickens are healthy and well-fed.
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Factory-raised broiling chickens never see green grass or sunshine.
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Fresh brown eggs are prized by consumers.
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Eggs labeled "cage-free."
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This carton lists the amount of omega-3 in the eggs.
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Gritty takes the time to examine food labels.

Food is a universal equalizer, required by all people from every walk of life, making it one of the most competitive commercial markets in the world. In 2012, American supermarkets brought in more than $602.6 billion in revenue. In an area of such intense competition, producers are always looking for new ways to make their products stand out. As a result, the last decade has seen an explosion of “new” food concepts, each coming with its own special label. While consumer options are growing, though, so is confusion. What exactly do all of these labels mean? How do you pick the right one for your family and your budget?

What follows is an examination of many commonly found food labels, broken down into three main categories: Produce, Meat, and Eggs/Poultry.


While agriculturalists may argue about the exact age requirement for an heirloom variety, the general consensus is that it can include any cultivar that was grown before 1951 (the year commercialized hybrids were first widely introduced on the market), is still in production today, and reproduces true-to-type year after year. These cultivars are open-pollinated, meaning they either self- or cross-pollinate with others of the same variety, and grow naturally generation-to-generation with the same characteristics as their parents. Some heirlooms are descendants of traditional Native American crops dating from pre-Columbian times. Regardless of age, heirlooms are widely known for their unique tastes, colors and textures not often copied in commercially available hybrid varieties.

Hybrid plants are produced by crossing two varieties of the same species, or in some cases, different species — typically in the same genus. Some hybridization occurs naturally and plays a role in adaptation and speciation. Seed growers make specific crosses to produce offspring with the best features of both parents. Hybrids are often labeled according to their generation, for instance F1 (a first-generation hybrid), F2 (offspring derived from F1 parents), and so on. Unlike open-pollinating heirlooms, though, hybrids typically don’t breed true-to-type. You cannot plant seed from hybrid plants and grow identical plants in the next generation. In fact, some hybrid plants are completely sterile. Others will produce offspring with the characteristics of one parent and not the other and/or a continuum of characteristics.  Hybrids have been with us for millennia, and many old commercial hybrids are still grown.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMO plants are created in a laboratory by directly altering a plant’s cellular DNA — the genetic material. They may be altered by adding genes from other plants, animals, viruses, bacteria or completely synthetic genes to produce a plant with special traits, such as resistance to pesticides or insects. Though just introduced commercially in 1996, reports from 2011 showed that more than 80 percent of American soy, sugar beets, corn and canola are commercial GM crops. GMOs are regulated by one of three agencies: the EPA, the FDA and the USDA, according to what they are genetically modified with.

To be considered organic according to USDA guidelines, produce must be both grown and handled under the following conditions:

• Without the use of “excluded methods,” which include GMOs as well as any methods used to influence growth and development in ways not naturally possible — hybrids are generally OK.
• Without the use of synthetic or chemical fertilizers, pesticides and sewage sludge.
• In soil that has not been treated with forbidden materials for three years prior to harvest.
• With the use of natural fertilizers, which can include ground fish, bone meal, organic compost, coffee, molasses and kelp, to name a few.


Heritage vs. commercial.
In a nutshell, heritage livestock are those that would have been found on Great-Grandmother’s farm. They were around before the industrialization of agriculture, and selectively bred for suitability to the local environment. Heritage breed poultry may have these additional characteristics (visit the Livestock Conservancy website for a bead on the evolving definition of heritage breeds):

• Self-sufficient instincts and foraging ability.
• Fertility and good maternal instincts, meaning they are able to breed naturally and raise young.
• Disease and parasite resistance.
• Dual purpose animals, meaning they are suitable for both meat and egg production.

Commercial livestock breeds are selected based on production standards to obtain more — meat and milk — faster. They are often developed as selections from crossing several different breeds to achieve these desired characteristics. Commercial poultry breeds also have these particular traits:

• Singular in purpose, meaning they are bred for either high egg production or fast meat.
• Rarely capable of natural breeding; many are sterile.
• Meat birds’ life expectancy is a matter of weeks, as their bodies cannot sustain their tremendous growth rates and mass to skeleton ratios.

Organic meat standards. As with organic produce standards, organic meat standards are outlined in the National Organic Program and regulated by the USDA. While the organic meat qualifications are quite lengthy, following is a general overview of the main requirements of the program:

• Animals grown for organic meat must be raised on certified organic pastures.
• They must be fed only organic feeds for their entire lives, including only milk with no substitutes until weaned — in the case of mammals.
• Drugs, antibiotics and growth hormones are prohibited in every situation.
• Access to the outdoors is required year-round.
• Feed must not contain any genetically modified grains, persistent pesticides or chemical fertilizers, animal by-products or antibiotics.
• Slaughterhouses where organic meat is processed must also be USDA inspected and certified organic.

The term “grassfed” is a voluntary standard regulated by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Officially, it requires that “grass and forage … be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” Further, “animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” The only other exception to this rule is “under adverse environmental or physical conditions,” when the well-being of the animal may call for supplementation, or in the case of “inadvertent exposure to non-forage feed stuffs.” If such circumstances do occur, the producer is required to provide full documentation to the USDA.

According to the Greener Choices website (a division of Consumer Reports), however, this label is only “somewhat meaningful.”

The problem arises from the fact that these AMS standards have been updated from an earlier definition created and implemented by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). When the grassfed label was first defined, it was possible for an animal to qualify as grassfed if at least 80 percent of the energy source during its life cycle came from grass, pasture or forage. This unfortunately also meant that a feedlot cow could qualify as grassfed if it were raised on pasture but finished on corn.

While the new, much more restrictive definition is currently being enforced by the AMS, producers who applied for and received the grassfed certification under the FSIS can still use it in their labeling, without being held accountable to the new 100 percent standard.

Naturally raised.
“Naturally raised” is a term often misinterpreted in agriculture. Many use it to describe animals raised on pasture and are thus free ranging and grassfed. That is not the case. Naturally raised is a voluntary standard, which producers may request through the USDA. While not as stringent as organic standards, it is similar in several ways.

• Livestock must be raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.
• Livestock must never have been fed animal byproducts derived from the slaughter/harvest process, including meat and fat, animal waste materials (such as manure or litter) and aquatic byproducts (such as fishmeal and fish oil).
• Ionophores (antibiotic molecules naturally synthesized by microorganisms) to prevent parasites ARE allowed to be used.

Certified humane raised and handled. Certified Humane status was developed and is regulated by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an international nonprofit certification organization. The qualifications must be met for all non-poultry livestock:

• A standard minimum amount of shelter per head of livestock (varies by species).
• Efforts must be made to minimize stress through gentle handling techniques.
• Cages, crates and tie stalls are forbidden.
• Animals must be free to act in natural ways (free to root, dust bathe, etc.).
• Food safety and environmental rules and regulations must be followed.
• All standards set forth by American Meat Institute (AMI) must be met, which exceed federal standards.


Pasture raised.
Like the term “naturally raised,” “pasture raised” is another term that is largely misunderstood in agriculture. And the fact that there is currently no legal standard regulated by the USDA makes it particularly problematic and open to interpretation. In general, though, when you see the term “pasture raised” in the supermarket, you can assume that the chickens were kept in mobile outdoor enclosures to allow a fresh, natural diet, such as grass and bugs. Their feed, however, may have been supplemented according to the discretion of the individual farmer.

“Cage-free” is a simple yet significant term, since as many as 98 percent of all eggs in the United States come from caged hens. The AMS monitors all claims and certifies labeling. The only requirement for cage-free status is that the hens are not housed in cages.

This label is regulated by the USDA for poultry only; it is voluntary for beef, lamb and pork. Birds that free range must have the following:

• Adequate shelter with unlimited access to food and fresh water.
• Access to the outdoors (size of doors not regulated).
• The outdoor area may or may not be fenced or covered, and there are no regulations as to the quality of land accessible, stocking density, or duration of outdoor access.

Eggs labeled as containing omega-3 fatty acids are generally produced by birds whose diets have been supplemented by good sources of the nutrient, such as flax seed, fish oil, algae, etc. There is no assurance that these birds have been allowed to graze on pasture, although the eggs of pastured birds naturally contain high levels of omega-3s.

Certified humane raised and handled.
While the basic standards are covered in the meat section, here are the additions specific for poultry:

• Hens should have 1 1/2 square feet of floor space each (although this figure varies slightly depending on the type of environment).
• Free-range birds must have outside access.
• Outdoor access doors must be large enough for more than one hen to enter/exit at a time.
• Forced molting is prohibited, although de-beaking is still allowed.

With so many consumer dollars at stake, a clear understanding of food labeling laws is absolutely essential for both the consumer and the producer.

Educated consumers may confidently choose the products that are right for them, while producers who know all of their available options may clearly describe their offerings. At the very least, now you’re a little better equipped to go out there and vote with your dollar.  

Interested in more? Read about the labels Certified Organic versus Certified Naturally Grown in The Truth About Organic Certification.

Suzanne Cox and her family enjoy growing heritage livestock and heirloom vegetables on their farm in Smithville, Tennessee. They strive to educate others on a healthier farm-fresh lifestyle.

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