There are over 20 ways to describe the way the food you are eating has been produced or grown. Many are meaningless when trying to make a healthy choice. George Wong (pictured) provides some guidelines.
If you, like many Americans these days, are shopping for eggs, meat or dairy and you want to ensure that the animals that produce them are treated humanely, with no irresponsible use of antibiotics, hormones or other chemicals, then you probably have had to navigate a sea of food labels and dubious claims in order to make informed purchasing decisions.
Many meat and dairy producers have heard these demands and in response have put official sounding labels and picturesque imagery as a means to put the consumers’ minds at ease. Words such as “pasture raised, organic, free range, humane, cruelty free, no antibiotics, no added hormones and cage free” are used, but what do they really mean? (See box for more details.)
Did you know in both the United States and Canada all food ingredients are listed in order by weight? So read the ingredients and their order, before the nutritional facts. Obviously, the fewer the ingredients, the ‘cleaner’ the product is. A general rule of thumb is that if you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not a healthy choice.
Other labels you will see are ‘Free Range’ and ‘USDA Organic,’ which adhere to a long list of clearly defined standards that are verified (see box). The problem though is although the Organic label ensures that the animals were fed organic feed and not given antibiotics or hormones, it has very little bearing on the animal’s quality of life.
According to Organic standards, animals must be fed Organic feed with no antibiotics, hormones or steroids, must have some access to outdoors, but the quality, size and duration is not specified. Thus claiming Organic doesn’t necessarily mean humane.
Now at this point you might be saying to yourself, is there nothing I can trust? Is this all a marketing ploy? Are those labels there just to pacify my sense of moral obligation in order to keep the flow of money to the large food producers unobstructed, while animals continue to suffer? Not exactly, if you really want to buy eggs, meat or dairy from animals that were raised well, the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends buying products with one of these three labels – Certified Humane (raised and handed), Global Animal Partnership, or Animal Welfare Approved. All three have clearly verified statements and prohibit cage confinement, hormones, sub therapeutic antibiotics, and represent a clear improvement on traditional methods of food production.
Many people buy Organic food hoping to feel healthier and potentially have a positive impact on the environment. But are Organic foods even better for you and the environment in the first place? For plants, the term Organic basically means something grown ‘without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.’ However, this is a little misleading. Many consumers purchase Organic products to avoid pesticides altogether, but the truth is, farmers can still use pesticides to prevent insects from destroying their crops. They just can’t be synthetically made. There are over 20 chemicals approved for organic use in the U.S. derived from natural sources such as plants. Not all Organic foods are even Organic. For a product to be labelled Organic, it only has to contain 95% Organic material/ingredients. The label ‘made with Organic ingredients’ on items like bread means only containing 70% Organic products while ‘containing Organic ingredients’ may only have 50%. Only when a label says 100% Organic does it contain purely Organic ingredients.
Confused? It’s not surprising. The cynics may suggest this confusion helps mass food producers give a veneer of Healthiness to their products, and the only true Organic comes from your local Farmer’s produce. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Certified Labels: These label claims are defined by a formal set of publicly available animal care standards. Compliance with the standards is verified by a third-party audit.
American Grassfed Certified
(dairy, beef, bison, lamb, goat)
A third-party certification program administered by the American Grassfed Association. The program’s standards require continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100 percent forage (no feedlots).
American Humane Certified
(dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, bison, lamb, goat, pork)
Access to the outdoors is not required for meat birds, egg-laying hens, beef cattle, and pigs. Provides the lowest space allowances of the main humane certification programs, and is the only welfare program to permit the use of cages for housing egg-laying hens.
Animal Welfare Approved
(dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, goose, duck, beef, bison, lamb, goat, pork, rabbit)
The only USDA-approved third-party certification label that supports and promotes family farmers who raise their animals in accordance with the highest welfare standards, outdoors, on pasture or range.
(dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, lamb, goat, pork)
Access to the outdoors is not required for meat birds, egg laying hens, and pigs; however, minimum space allowances and indoor environmental enrichment must be provided. Feedlots are permitted for beef cattle.
(dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, goose, duck, beef, bison, lamb, goat, pork)
The standards are general and apply to all animals. They don’t address many animal care issues such as weaning, physical alterations, minimum space requirements, handling, transport, or slaughter. They do, however, require some access to the outdoors for all animals, access to pasture for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats), fresh air and sunlight, and freedom of movement.
Food Alliance Certified
(dairy, eggs, chicken, beef, lamb, pork)
A nonprofit sustainable agriculture certification program that supports “safe and fair working conditions, humane treatment of animals, and good environmental stewardship.” Standards provide for access to natural light, fresh air, and space, but access to the outdoors is not required for all animals.
Unverified Claims: These claims have no legal definition and standards are vague and/or weak. Compliance with the USDA’s definition is not verified on the farm by the government or any independent third party.
Cage Free (eggs)
This claim indicates the eggs came from hens who were “never confined to a cage and have had unlimited access to food, water, and the freedom to roam,” but usually only within the confines of a shed. In fact, cage-free hens often have scarcely more space than caged birds, and may not be given access to sunlight and fresh air.
Free Range/Free Roaming (eggs)
This claim, indicating that hens were allowed access to the outdoors, may be used on eggs that are USDA Certified Organic.
Free Range/Free Roaming (all products)
No legal definition exists for these claims when used on any food products. The guideline merely states that the animals must be given continuous, free access to the outdoors.
Free Range (chicken, turkey, goose, duck)
The USDA informally defines “free range” for poultry as having access to the outside. However, because birds may be housed indoors for inclement weather and other reasons, and given that chickens raised for meat are slaughtered at just 42 days, it is possible that some free-range chickens never step outside.
Free Roaming (beef, bison, lamb, goat, pork)
In order to receive approval from the USDA, farmers must show that the animals had “continuous, free access to the outdoors for a significant portion of their lives.”
Grass Fed (dairy, beef, bison, lamb, goat)
The USDA has no official definition of this claim, meaning “grass fed” claims should be accompanied by an explanation of what the term means to individual producers. The USDA allows the claim even when animals may be confined to feedlots, and antibiotics and hormones are permitted.
Humanely Raised/Humanely Handled (all products)
The USDA has no official definition of this claim. The department is merely verifying that the producer has met its own standards, and as such the claim may simply represent a marketing tactic with little or no relevance to animal welfare.
No Added Hormones/No Hormones Administered
(dairy, beef, bison, lamb)
The USDA does not approve “hormone free” claims, as all animals produce hormones naturally. The USDA does not routinely test for the presence of hormones, so no verification system exists.
No Antibiotics Administered/Raised without Antibiotics
The claim “antibiotic free” is not allowed because antibiotic residue testing technology cannot verify that an animal has never received antibiotics.
Pasture Raised/Pasture Grown/Meadow Raised
Generally, “pasture raised” is used to indicate that a dairy, egg, meat, or poultry product came from animals provided with continuous access to pasture and natural vegetation. However, no regulatory standard for the term exists.
Sustainably Farmed (all products)
The USDA has no official definition of this claim. In other words, as with “humanely raised,” this claim can likely mean just about anything the producer wants it to mean.
Meaningless or Misleading Claims The following claims are meaningless or misleading with regard to animal welfare. (They may not be meaningless or misleading in terms of other issues.)
Cage Free (chicken, turkey)
The label is meaningless when used on chicken or turkey products since birds raised for meat are not typically caged prior to transport to slaughter.
No Added Hormones/No Hormones Administered (chicken, turkey, goose, duck, pork)
The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in the production of poultry and pork. Such a claim on pork or poultry should be considered a marketing ploy with the sole intent to mislead consumers.
USDA Process Verified (all products)
The AMS offers this seal to producers as a marketing tool. This claim, indicating the diet did not contain animal byproducts, has no relevance to the welfare conditions under which the animal was raised.