If you’re concerned about pesticides in produce or hormones and antibiotics in meat or poultry, you may have noticed that the food industry is responding to concerned consumers like you with new food labels that tout “all-natural” and “naturally raised.” But what do these terms really mean? And, does anybody verify or regulate some of these claims?
You might be surprised to find that many terms are ill-defined, unregulated or may not be as “animal friendly” as they sound.
Have You Seen These Terms?
Raised without Antibiotics – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined this to mean that meat or poultry products came from animals who were raised without the use of low-level doses of antibiotics. However, there is no organization that routinely conducts tests to verify these claims. In the last few years, at least one large poultry producer made this claim despite feeding antibiotics to chickens. The FDA only stepped in after they were taken to court by their competitors.
No Additives – While you might assume this means that nothing has been added to the product such as fillers, preservatives or flavors this is not the case. There is no formal definition for this term so you might want to scan the ingredients list.
Chemical-free – Under USDA regulations, this term isn't allowed on meat or poultry labels, so this is a big “red flag.” Other disallowed terms include: "residue-free," "residue tested," "naturally raised," "naturally grown" or "drug-free."
Natural or All Natural – Under USDA regulations, this term may be used on labeling for meat and poultry products if the product doesn't contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient. The product and its ingredients should also be minimally processed. Furthermore, the product label must explain what is meant by natural, i.e. (no preservatives or artificial flavors). The term has no meaning with regard to animal feeding or welfare.
100% Vegan – This term does not have a standard definition, nor is it verified. However a “Certified Vegan” label, which is administered by the Vegan Awareness Foundation, (aka Vegan Action) does mean that the product is not only free of animal products, it is also not tested on animals.
No Animal By-Products – You might see this term on anything from bacon to cat food. It can mean that the meat you are purchasing came from an animal that was not fed animal by-products or that the product is not made with animal by-products. Again, the problem with this term is that there is not a precise definition of “animal ingredients,” nor is it verified by anyone.
Free-Range – You might see this term on eggs or poultry and think it means that the chickens have never seen the inside of a cage, but that’s not the case. Per the USDA, it only means they have access to the outdoors for an undetermined period of time each day. It may only be for 5 minutes. And it doesn’t mean that they have not been subjected to other practices like beak clipping that may be considered inhumane.
Grass Fed vs. Pasture Raised – Under USDA regulations, grass fed means that grass and forage are the feed source for ruminant animals (such as cattle, sheep, bison) for the duration of their life after weaning. Animals can't be fed grain or grain byproducts. They must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. The term pasture raised, means that ruminants have access to the outdoors as well as access to pasture. But only 30% of their dry-feed intake must come from pasture. The balance can be grain products.
Cage-Free – this means that laying hens live uncaged, typically within a barn or other enclosed area. They must have unlimited access to food and water and the freedom to roam within the enclosed area. Cage-free doesn't mean the hens have access to the outdoors. While the birds can engage in some natural behaviors, such as nesting and spreading their wings, practices such as beak cutting are allowed.
Certified Humane – This certification is administered by Humane Farm Animal Care to ensure humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter. The USDA does not regulate this certification.
For more information on this topic, see: Fooled by Food Labels: 9 Deceptive Claims to Watch Out For.
The Daily Green