Making Sense of Food Labels

The first crack in my shopping confidence occurred not long ago at a local natural-foods store. As I reached for a package of fresh chicken wings proudly labeled no hormones administered, a voice rose up from behind me. “Actually, they’re not allowed to give hormones to poultry,” said the gentleman in the “Krishna Is My Copilot” T-shirt. “So it’s kind of like saying, ‘contains no plutonium.’”

These days, labels are everywhere, purporting to tell us where and how our food was grown, raised or caught; what it ate; and what, if any, environmental impacts its raising or harvesting might have. Not to be confused with the Nutrition Facts labels that are on every packaged item and list the food’s nutritional value, these are called eco-labels. And there are many—so many, in fact, that the Consumer Reports Greener Choices Eco-Labels Center lists 146 of them. That’s a lot to know about our food. (A little research revealed that the man at the natural-foods store was correct—the U.S. Department of Agriculture does prohibit the use of hormones in poultry.)

Today, being a smart shopper means more than avoiding trans fats, supporting small-scale and organic agriculture, and knowing how to read—and understand—nutrition labels. It means knowing the impacts of our food choices on animal and human welfare, on farmers, on wildlife, on the environment and on local economies. Food labeling can help us to both eat more healthfully and make choices that are aligned with our values. With a little digging and a lot of information, all of us can be smarter shoppers.

It’s only natural—or is it?

When it comes to food labeling, the real trick is knowing what the labels mean, who’s behind them (for example, an industry group, an advocacy group or a government agency), and whether an independent third party is making sure the companies using the labels are honest in their claims. Unlike certified organic, which is defined and regulated by the USDA, most labels are defined only loosely. Even the experts are mystified. “These labels are extremely confusing to everyone because there are no generally accepted or required standards for them,” author and nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote by e-mail. “They’re so complicated that I wrote about them extensively in my book What to Eat.”

By far the most popular label is natural, which is limited by the USDA to be used only for meat and poultry products. Foods labeled natural may not contain any artificial flavorings, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients, and they must be only “minimally processed,” which the USDA defines as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. Yet while the USDA can hold accountable a company making this claim, no verification system is in place.

USDA Director of Public Affairs Billy Cox acknowledges the confusion around the natural claim. In response, the agency is developing language to further define it.

Still, there are a handful of labels that say what they mean and mean what they say. Ronnie Commins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, says that consumers can trust independent, third-party-certified products labeled USDA organic, made with organic and fair trade. “Other health or eco-labels, such as Forest Stewardship Certification, Marine Stewardship Certification and Rainforest Alliance, have varying degrees of credibility depending on the rigor of the standards and the specific type or procedures of certification,” he says.

What’s in a label?

In 2005, National Geographic’s Green Guide analyzed a variety of labels for reliability. The labels were categorized according to whether they were verified by an independent third party (reliable), not verified (less reliable), and not verified and/or no uniform standards and poorly defined (least reliable). The publication reported that the least-reliable labels are the ones we see most often, such as antibiotic-free, free-range, fresh, hormone-free and natural. The most reliable tend to be the ones that speak to environmental and social justice issues, and that are backed up by third-party certifiers, such as bird friendly, certified humane raised and handled, healthy grown and fair trade-certified.

When shopping, look for labels and terms that are defined by a government or other reliable agency; those that were developed by organizations that are invested in better agricultural, animal- and human-welfare, and environmental practices (as opposed to labels that are developed and monitored by the company that produces the food or the retailer that sells it); as well as those that are verified through third-party certifiers. Following are just some of the labels you might encounter at the grocery store.

Antibiotic-free or Raised Without Antibiotics

Meat and poultry carrying these labels must not have had any antibiotics administered during the lifetime of the animal. The USDA has banned the term antibiotic-free on meat products, calling it “unapprovable,” but does allow raised without antibiotics and no antibiotics administered. There is no third-party certifier responsible for verifying these claims, however.


While there is no legal definition for the term cage-free, it implies that hens laying eggs are uncaged inside barns or warehouses. It does not mean the hens have access to the outdoors, but that they do have the option to engage in many of their natural behaviors, such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. There is no third-party certifier.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled

A program of Humane Farm Animal Care, this label indicates that animals raised for dairy, lamb, poultry and beef products are treated in a humane manner and without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. Producers must adhere to environmental standards and processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards, a higher standard for slaughtering farm animals than required by the Federal Humane Slaughter Act. All farms wishing to be certified must be inspected and standards must be met before a product can bear the label.

Farmed Seafood or Fish Farming

NEW Country of Origin Labeling: Where Does Your Food Come From?

Most of us are used to peeling off the little labels that tell us where our apples and plums were grown. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know where our meats and poultry were raised and harvested or where our seafood was caught and processed.

The good news for consumer is that the 2002 U.S. government mandate that requires retailers to place a country of origin label (COOL) on all beef, lamb, pork, farm-raised and wild fish and shellfish, fruits, vegetables, and peanuts will finally go into effect September 2008 for all products except fish and shellfish (COOL requirements for fish and shellfish became effective in April 2005), after a prolonged delay.

That means that everything from wild salmon to bagged frozen shrimp must, by law, carry a label stating where it was caught, where it was processed and whether it was caught in the wild or farmed.

Reliable Resources for the Food-Label Curious

American Grassfed Association: A nonprofit organization promoting pasture-based farming and the creation of standards for grass-fed and pasture-raised foods.

Animal Welfare Approved: A program of the Animal Welfare Institute aimed at promoting high standards for animal farming.

Consumers Union :The nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports directs some its efforts to monitoring food safety and other food-related issues.

Consumer Reports Greener Choices Eco-Labels Center: A complete list of eco-labels and report cards evaluating their usefulness and relevance.

FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition: Outlines requirements for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s labeling program.

Organic Consumers Association: Information for consumers interested in organic and other food issues. Includes articles that discuss status of food labeling programs.

Seafood Watch: A program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium offering consumer-targeted information about making responsible seafood choices.

The Sustainable Table Dictionary : In addition to an impressive array of food-related information, as well as links to important and sometimes entertaining information about the dangers of factory farming, this site features a comprehensive list of terminology connected to food and agriculture.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Services: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s division for agricultural marketing.

Country of Origin Labeling: Resources and information about country-of-origin labeling from the USDA.

Involves raising fish commercially in tanks or other enclosures, usually for food. Proponents of fish farming believe it offers an alternative to widespread overfishing in the wild by commercial fisheries. Opponents, however, believe fish farming creates overcrowding and pollution.

Free Range or Free Roaming

The USDA has defined free range (or free roaming) for poultry (but not for eggs) to mean that the birds raised in this manner are able to go outdoors in order to engage in natural behaviors. For other products, such as eggs and other types of meat, there is no standard definition, and therefore the use of the terms is unregulated. There is no third-party certifier responsible for verifying the claim.

GMO-Free or Non-GMO

The product was produced without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Currently, there is no certification process that backs up this claim.

Grass-fed and Pasture-raised

The terms grass-fed and pasture-raised (or pasture-based) imply that the animals spend their lives on pasture eating what nature intended; they are not treated with hormones or antibiotics. To date, no official definition has been issued by the USDA. The American Grassfed Association has trademarked a label and will be launching a certification program for products labeled American Grassfed.

Natural or All Natural

According to the USDA, which has defined the term natural only for meat and poultry, products labeled natural or all natural must not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. Currently, no standards exist for this claim except when used on meat and poultry products. There is no organization behind the claim other than the company manufacturing or marketing the product, and there is no third-party certifier.

No Additives

No additives is a general claim (there is no government or official definition) that may imply a product (or packaging) has not been enhanced with the addition of natural or artificial ingredients. Neither the USDA nor the Food and Drug Administration has provided guidance for using the claim. However, additives are defined and regulated by these agencies.

No Hormones Administered

The USDA has prohibited use of the term hormone-free, but meats and poultry can be labeled no hormones administered. The agency prohibits the use of hormones in the raising of hogs or poultry in the United States. However, it does allow the use of hormones on beef. There is no organization behind this claim other than the manufacturer.

Wild Caught Seafood

This term applies to seafood caught in their natural habitats by fisheries, usually for food.

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