Good Label Manners: What 'organic,' 'free range' and 'hormone free' really mean

Organic food has hit the big time. The Natural Marketing Institute reported that consumers spent $58 billion dollars on health food in 2003 – almost 9 percent more than in 2002. Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods grocery chain in the United States, now boasts more than 150 stores. Consumer spending seems to reflect a complex set of concerns, including animal rights, environmental issues, food quality and safety and social justice. According to a May 2003 Gallup Poll, 62 percent of Americans favor passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. And the organic foods market has consistently grown by 20 percent each year for the last decade.

In response to consumer demand, new eco-labels are hitting mainstream grocery stores and food items, and consumers are willing to pay more for these products. In March, for example, a new “Whole Grain Stamp” intended to help shoppers meet the new government dietary guidelines will appear on some breads and flours.

But do the billions of consumer dollars spent support valid label claims? What does it mean if your food is stamped “organic,” “free-range” or “hormone free”? It doesn’t always mean what the label suggests.

Here’s what you can expect some of the most common labels to mean:

The certified organic label is the most comprehensive and closely regulated designation on the market, and you can be confident that the food meets a series of criteria. In October 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified national standards for organic food and designated agencies to certify compliance. In Missouri, the Missouri Department of Agriculture Organic Program is accredited to enforce organic standards.

What does “organic” get you? According to Sue Baird, program coordinator for the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Organic Program, organic production methods stipulate that most synthetic and petroleum-derived pesticides and fertilizers - and all antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge - are prohibited for use at all stages. Organic animals must eat 100 percent organic feed that does not contain animal byproducts or urea, though it may have vitamins and minerals added. The label also addresses animal treatment. “The animals must be given the space to exhibit their natural behavior patterns and must have access to the outdoors,” said Baird. If an animal becomes sick and antibiotics are necessary to be given, that animal must be taken out of organic production.

Organic methods also mandate that soil fertility must be maintained or enhanced through practices such as crop rotation, cover cropping and compost application. Food safety is an important consideration, and if a crop comes into contact with the soil, then animal manures cannot be added to the soil less than 90 days prior to harvest. If the crop touches the soil, manure cannot be added less than 120 days before harvest.

The standards allow for tiers of organic classification. Food that is "100 percent Organic" must be comprised of all organic ingredients, including additives and processing aids. "Organic" foods must be comprised of at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Both the “100 percent Organic” and the “Organic” products may use the USDA seal, and the certifying agent must be identified on the package. Foods labeled as “Made with Organic Ingredients" must be comprised of at least 70 percent organic ingredients. There are no restrictions for the additional 30 percent of the ingredients, other than prohibition of genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge or irradiation. Finally, products containing 70 percent or fewer organic ingredients must identify the organic ingredients. These products are not considered organic.

Not all organic farmers opt to become certified organic. Such is the case with Paul Krautmann, owner of Bellews Creek Farm in Cedar Hill, Mo. Krautmann has been practicing sustainable agriculture for 13 years and was “organic” before organic was trendy. Krautmann feels strongly that organic should represent a proactive philosophy as much as a listing of prohibitions. “The national organic standards reflect pressure from agribusiness,” Krautmann asserted. “Because these standards represent the entire United States, there is little consideration of local habitats and practices, and in several ways the standards have been lowered.” For example, organic standards now allow coproduction. “The federal government permits organic and nonorganic crops to be grown in the same field,” explained Krautmann. “Though the organic crops must adhere to strict criteria, there is little to prevent contamination of organic and nonorganic crops.”

Finally, consumers should be aware that under USDA organic standards, only ruminant animals are guaranteed continuous access to the outdoors without confinement; chickens are not guaranteed the same access and can be confined.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled:
This label is regulated by Humane Farm Animal Care. This is a reliable label that certifies that meat, dairy and egg products came from animals that were raised without growth hormones and antibiotics and given access to sufficient food and water and a safe living environment from birth through slaughter. Producers also must comply with environmental standards. “Free Farmed” is another label that guarantees that meat, dairy and egg products came from animals that were provided access to sufficient food and water and a safe environment and were not treated with growth hormones. It does not address the use of antibiotics, however. This label is certified by the American Humane Association.

Raised Without Antibiotics:
The USDA allows this label to be applied to red meat and poultry products (but not eggs) if sufficient documentation is provided to the agency. The label means that the animals were raised without therapeutic doses of antibiotics. Unless otherwise specified on the food product, there is no organization independently certifying this claim.

No Hormones Administered:
The USDA prohibits the use of hormones in the raising of hogs and poultry in the United States. If these products bear the claim “no hormones added,” it must be followed by a statement that says, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” The USDA does permit the use of a number of hormones on beef. As such, beef that is labeled as “no hormones administered” is considered to be free from any added hormones over the lifetime of the animal. Although the USDA can hold a manufacturer accountable for claims that no hormones were administered, it is not regulated by a third party.

The mad cow disease crisis in the early 1990s saw an increase in the demand for grass-fed or pastured cattle, since conventional feed may contain contaminated animal parts. The “Grass-fed” label indicates that animals have been raised on pastures, but at this time the claim is not third-party certified. When animals are truly grass-fed, the benefits extend not only to the environment and the animal’s quality of life, but also to the nutritional content of the final product; grass-fed hens, for example, produce eggs higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventional eggs.

Meat and poultry carrying the “Natural” claim must not contain any artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives or artificial or synthetic ingredients and are minimally processed in a way that “does not fundamentally alter the raw product.” The USDA allows this label to be applied to meat from animals that were raised using growth hormones or antibiotics, however, and there is no third-party verification.

Fair Trade:
The “Fair Trade” label speaks to social and economic responsibility. The standards aim to ensure that the farmers receive a fair price for their product. Many fair-trade-certified products are also organic. TransFair USA certifies the label through annual visits to fair-trade producers in Latin America, Africa and Asia to ensure that the extra funds paid for their goods are being spent on social, economic or environmental projects that benefit communities. Though the label is primarily applied to coffee and some tea, the label is now expanding to include other imports like bananas and chocolate. The label promotes self-reliance for small-scale farmers and protection of vital ecosystems throughout the developing world.

Whole Grain Stamp:
Sponsored by The Whole Grains Council (“industry, scientists, chefs and Oldways Preservation Trust”), this producer-driven label’s goal is to make it easier for consumers to find products with whole grains on store shelves. The criteria for inclusion are straightforward: “Good” products have at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving; “excellent” ones have at least 16 grams (an amount that meets the standard USDA serving for whole grain); and “100 percent/excellent” products have at least 16 grams and contain no refined grains. However, only members of the Whole Grains Council can use the labels.

Access to Pasture:
There are several labels that address animal treatment and confinement issues. The words “free roam” conjure up images of animals wandering freely in a field. However, USDA regulations stipulate only that animals termed “free range” have access to the outdoors for an unspecified period of time each day; there is no provision for how much time they spend outside or how much room they have to wander. Some reports suggest that most of the chickens never actually go outside. The U.S. regulations apply only to poultry animals and don’t include egg production. “Cage-free” is another term often applied to egg- and dairy-product packages. It is meant to guarantee that chickens were not housed in cages, but it does not mean that the animals were given access to the outdoors, and it is important to note that use of this term is not verified by a regulatory party. Used alone, it does not necessarily guarantee anything, but if it is used in conjunction with a certified organic label, then it is reliable.

About 80 percent of egg cartons sold in the United States carry the “Animal Care Certified” label and logo. The guidelines were created by a group of scientists commissioned by the United Egg Producers, the umbrella group which oversees most of the commercial U.S. egg producers. The stated mission of Animal Care Certified is to assure that farmers adhere to the highest scientific standards for egg production. According to the Animal Care Certified Web site, its guidelines approve caging as long as there is space for hens to “stand comfortably upright.” Consumers should also be aware that the guidelines permit the practice of severing chickens’ beaks to prevent pecking and underfeeding hens to extend egg production.

With so many labels and such complex definitions, how does a shopper make informed purchases? Clearly, making responsible choices requires reading beyond the labels. “The most reliable information about your food,” said Krautman, “comes from the farmer or producer.” He encourages his customers to visit, as do many of the local small growers and producers.