Decoding Organic Food Labels

If you’ve ever found yourself standing in the aisle of a grocery store debating between purchasing the conventional $1.99 eggs versus the $3.99 cage-free eggs versus the $6.99 free-range eggs, don’t worry. You are not alone.

If you’re anything like the average consumer, you probably find some of the terminology on food packages confusing.   Believe me when I tell you that it confuses me too, and I’m a dietitian!

Animal welfare is a hot topic. The Trump Administration recently withdrew the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) proposed final rule. This rule would have helped to improve the welfare of USDA Certified Organic livestock animals (1).  

You might think that Organic label on animal products already means that the animals lived happy, healthy, farm lives with plenty of open space to roam free. But not necessarily; there are loopholes.

Consumers want to feel like they’re making well-informed choices when they purchase organic products, but there are some companies who exploit the organic label.

“As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones (2).” But we’re finding that this isn’t always the case. Chickens are often still living in large hen houses with only “access” to the outdoors (3).

Okay, so now what do all those organic labels you see on meat and eggs actually mean? The following definitions are from an article in April’s monthly edition of Today’s Dietitian (1).

  1. Animal Welfare Approved. This is the most rigorous certification for animal welfare ethics. The label requires animals to be raised on a pasture in a way that’s healthful for them and the environment (4).

  2. Certified Humane Raised and Handled. This label is a third-party certification that comes from an independent nonprofit organization. It certifies that eggs, dairy, meat, and poultry are raised with sufficient space, shelt, gentle handling, fresh water, and no added antibiotics or hormones (5).

  3. Organic. This label ensure the animal is raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones and with organic feed. However, the label has limited specifications regarding animal welfare and ethics (6).

  4. Hormone-free. This claim hormone-free technically is misleading, as all animals naturally contain hormones. However, this labeling claim is meant to suggest that the animal wasn’t given hormones during its lifespan. Hormones are banned in poultry, pork, and goats (7).

  5. Grass-fed. This term technically means that the cattle or lamb were fed grass diets from birth to slaughter. This term was withdrawn by the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USBA in January 2016 (8).

  6. Free-range. This USDA-regulated term means that producers must demonstrate that poultry is allowed access to the outdoors. Free-range eggs must be produced by cage-free hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food and water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle (9).

  7. Cage-free. This labeling claim suggests that animal are raised without being in cages. This doesn’t mean birds have access to the outdoor or have a large living space (10).

  8. Raised without antibiotics. This label suggest animals were raised without being given subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics. However, no third party organization exists to support this claim (11).

  9. Natural. The USDA allows the term “natural” to be used on meat and poultry packaging. “Natural” suggests the product contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Minimal processing means the product was processed in a manner that doesn’t fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term “natural” as such “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed (12).”

Take a screenshot or print off these definitions, bookmark this article. Use these definitions next time you go shopping! We vote with our dollars.

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