Decoding Labels

When we see the label “free-range” or “free-roaming” on poultry, we may picture an idyllic scene with chickens walking around on a grassy field, stretching their wings, getting sunshine and exercise, pecking on tasty “organic” feed, and in general living happier, healthier lives.  But did you know that in order to use the label “free-range” on poultry, chickens need to have access to the outside for only five minutes a day?  And when the “free-range” claim is applied to eggs, it means absolutely nothing.
In an effort to protect our health, many of us pay more for foods labeled “Organic,” “Cage-Free,” “Raised Without Antibiotics.” But some of the time these claims are misleading and do little to insure our good health.
  • “USDA Organic” label on fruits and vegetables:  Crops must meet the USDA standard, that is they must have been grown without most synthetic and petroleum-derived fertilizers or pesticides, antibiotics, irradiation, or genetic engineering.
  • “USDA Organic” label on meat: The animals must be fed only with organically grown feed without animal byproducts, and should not be given hormones and antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors — although when the label is applied to poultry (chickens, turkeys, etc.) the animals don’t necessarily need to actually spend time outdoors.
  • “Organic” label on fish:  This means absolutely nothing.
  • “Cage-Free” label on eggs: Implies hens not kept in cages, but the claim doesn’t mean the hens had enough room to move around freely or that they had access to the outdoors.  This claim is not regulated.
  • “No Antibiotics Administered” or “Raised without Antibiotics” labels: These claims imply that the animals did not receive any antibiotics; however, this claim is NOT verified by any outside agency.
  • “No Hormones Administered” label: It is illegal to administer hormones to poultry or hogs, so this claim means only that the producer has followed the law.  When applied to meat, the label implies that no hormones are used, but the claim is NOT verified by any independent agency.

Two great resources on labeling:

Consumer Reports

So, where does all of this leave us?  Some great options for you and your family include:

  • Purchase products with meaningful labels, such as USDA organic produce and grass-fed meats
  • Buy more of your food from fatmer’s markets, local farms, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

Thanks to Fran Callahan of the Kaplan Center for helping compile links.

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