There is a push in the American public for a food system that is more natural, sustainable, and considering of animal ethics. To match these interests, food product marketers have introduced many tricky labeling tactics used to imply that a food or food product fits into this desired model. This review is intended to define regulations surrounding some of the common marketing terms used to misguide the public and to introduce to consumers what specific labels and phrases actually mean so that they may make more informed decisions about the foods they are choosing to purchase.
One of the most commonly used and misleading of these marketing strategies is use of the word “natural” on food products. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) only regulates the use of this word on meat a poultry packaging. For these food types the term is loosely regulated and indicates that the product contains no artificial ingredients (flavors, colors, preservatives, or other) and is minimally processed. The label specifies nothing related to what the animals are fed, how they are raised, or the use of antibiotics and hormones. For all food products aside from meat and poultry the term “natural” is entirely unregulated and there is no legal definition of it.
“Hormone-free” is a claim often seen on meats, poultry, and dairy products. The term in it of itself is relatively deceptive because all animal meats and milk will contain hormones that are naturally produced by the animal. The phrase then, indicates that the animal received no synthetic hormones. Federal regulations already prohibit the use of hormones in pigs, goats, and poultry. Therefore, when the phrase “hormone-free” is used on these product types it misleads consumers to believe they are purchasing a product that is superior that may not actually be so. Certain synthetic hormones, however, may be used in beef and dairy cattle. For these food products, “hormone-free” indicates that synthetic hormones have not been used but suggests nothing related to the absence of natural occurring hormones, antibiotic use, animal feed, or animal living conditions.
Another phrase that may be seen on packaging is “raised without antibiotics.” Many large scale animal product producers use antibiotics in subtherapeutic doses throughout the animal’s life. This type of antibiotic use can be linked to the production and spread of harmful antibiotic resistant bacteria. It should be noted, however, that some producers do use antibiotics in a responsible manner to treat animal illness or injury. The USDA is responsible for regulating the antibiotic claim for meat and poultry items. For these food products “raised without antibiotics” requires that the animals were never given antibiotics in their feed, water, or via injection. For egg and dairy products there is no regulatory definition for the claim. That said, antibiotic residues should not be present in any of the milk or eggs produced in the US regardless of the label. When antibiotics are used on dairy cows, the animal is milked separately from the other milk producing animals until antibiotic residues are cleared and no longer detectable in the milk. Eggs laid from chickens that are given antibiotics are also tested to ensure no antibiotic residues are present in the eggs. The label specifies nothing related to hormone use, animal feed type, or living conditions.
“Grass-fed” is a term that you may have seen on animal meat and dairy foods. This term implies that the animal in question was fed primarily grass from weaning to slaughter. Meat and dairy from animals fed in this manner are more healthful than their grain fed counterparts. However, the “grass-fed” phrase is another that is not regulated strictly by the USDA. In fact, there is no uniform standard for this label and instead producers are allowed to submit their own criteria designating what the phrase means on their product. It is possible, then, that an organization chooses to define an animal that was fed mostly grains with some grass as “grass-fed.” Some third party certifications may be more consistent and reliable in their grass-fed claim; PCO Certified 100% Grass-fed, American Grass-fed, and Certified Grass-fed by A Greener World (AGW) are some examples. “Grass-fed” does not suggest anything related to the use of hormones and antibiotics or the living conditions of the animal in question.
Phrases that do imply better animal living conditions for animals include “pasture raised” and “free range.” These labeling terms have become more appealing because many consumers are aware that most of the animals raised for food production in the US are not allowed appropriate grazing room or even outdoor access. Instead, the majority of beef and dairy cattle are raised in crowded feed-lot areas (both outdoor and indoor) while pigs and poultry are raised in packed spaces, most commonly with no exposure to the outdoors. As with other product labeling tactics, these claims may not be as notable as they seem. For the label “pasture-raised,” again there is no common standard that producers must meet to apply this phrase to their product. In fact, on dairy and egg products the phrase is somewhat meaningless because the term is unregulated on these food types, there is no required application and verification process nor standards that need be met for use. For meat and poultry there are no common laws for using the “pasture raised” label and, similar to the “grass-fed” phrase, producers are allowed to develop their own standards for label definition. Additionally, the claim must not be verified via on-farm inspections and is only approved with a written application with explanation of these producer-set standards. The “free-range” term is USDA regulated for poultry but is unregulated for pigs and cattle. For meat producing poultry that label simply requires that the birds are allowed access to the outdoors every day, there is no outdoor time specification and the access could be limited to minutes (nowhere near the outdoor time you’d naturally associate with a free range animal). For egg producing hens, “free-range” requires that the birds are cage free and raised in a building or area with access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The label does not specify that the birds are allowed an uncrowded space. These phrases provide no indication related to what the animals are fed or use of antibiotics and hormones.
The “cage-free” labeling claim is used on poultry and suggests that the animal is raised without being in a cage. Although they’re not confined to cages, this phrase does not suggest anything else about the bird’s living conditions; outdoor access and space is not required. In fact, a “cage-free” animal may be raised in an overly crowded indoor space at a large factory farm and the label would be perfectly acceptable.
Many products flaunt the text “sustainable” on their products. Unfortunately, this term is also undefined and unregulated. Interested consumers need to seek the definition from the company using the term on their product to identify whether or not the company is in alignment with consumer vision of a sustainable product.
Some companies have responded to consumer pressure for foods that do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMO)s by voluntarily labeling products as “Non-GMO.” Again, for these product types the label is not regulated and may mean whatever the company chooses as their “Non-GMO” definition. The Non-GMO Project is a third party organization that verifies food products as free of GMOs and is a reliable label stamp compared to the simple use of the term “non-GMO” alone.
Although regulatory standards for many labeling terms and phrases may be discouraging, there are some labels that hold a bit more tout in terms of upholding specific government requirements. As far as these standards go, the most significant food label is the USDA Certified Organic seal. However, consumers should be aware that in some ways this label certification may also be misleading. In order to use the USDA organic label crops must be grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or sewage sludge. Synthetic being the key word here and, by no means, do organic farmers use no pesticides at all. Instead, they are able to use pesticides which are derived from natural sources. While the assumption may be that these pesticide types are better for environmental and human health, it seems that more research is needed in this area. Certified organics may not be irradiated and use of GMOs is prohibited in organic foods. That’s right, an organic farmer cannot grow GMO plants, an organic chicken cannot be fed GMO grain, and an organic frozen burrito cannot contain GMO ingredients. Therefore, aside from the Non-GMO Project, consumers may look to the USDA organic label for GMO free foods. For animal products containing the certified organic seal, you may ensure that the animal was fed only organic ingredients (with no animal byproducts) throughout its lifespan and that no synthetic hormones or antibiotics were used on said animal. If an animal must receive antibiotics for any reason at any point in its life, its meat, milk, or eggs cannot be labeled USDA organic. Cloned animals may not hold the USDA organic label. Animals raised for production of USDA organic products must have access to the outdoors, although this access does not speak to animal crowding standards or actual time spent outside or on pasture. While the USDA organic label does hold strict criteria for use, it does not infer much related to sustainability or use of animal welfare and ethics practices. Do not confuse products with the term “organic” placed on their packaging with those holding the USDA organic seal, because this is the true regulated organic label.
There are some certifications that hold animal welfare to a higher standard. The Certified Humane Raised and Handled is a third-party offered certification provided by an independent, nonprofit organization. The label ensures that egg, dairy, and meat producing animals are cared for in a way that meets this organization’s animal care standards from birth to slaughter. In order to display this label animals must never be kept in cages, crates, or tie stalls and should be allowed to move in a way that would be done so naturally (chickens must be able to flap their wings, and pigs and cattle must have space to move around). Additionally, animals must be fed a quality animal food product with no animal byproducts, antibiotics, or growth hormones.
The most rigorous certification available in terms of animal welfare and environmental sustainability is the Animal Welfare Approved label, which is recognized by AGW. The standards were developed by a collaborative team of scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers. This is the only label that secures that animals are raised on an open pasture for their entire lives. The animals must also be raised by independent farmers using sustainable and ethical farming practices. Further, this label considers animal welfare, not only in production, but in their handling, transportation, and slaughtering practices. Additionally, those holding an Animal Welfare Approved certification must participate in annual auditing and in-person inspections to ensure that they are upholding to standards appropriately. A Greener World also offers high standards in their Grass-fed certification, which requires that animals are100% grass-fed foragers from weaning to slaughter (along with the ranging environmental standard requirements). A Greener World provides a non-GMO certification and will soon be offering an organic certification as well.
The intricacies of food labeling offer companies unique approaches to marketing their products. By increasing awareness of what various label phrases and certifications mean, consumers can improve their navigation of a confusing market and bring their food purchases into alignment with personal values. It is important to keep in mind that not all labels are as good as they seem and that monetary restrictions may leave quality products uncertified and, therefore, unlabeled as such. Aside from becoming well versed in food labeling practices, purchasers can educate themselves on local farmers and food producers who hold food related certifications or produce food in a way that parallels their food sustainability and ethics related beliefs and principles.