Food Labels Decoded

By Lisa Kaschmitter, Nutritionist


As consumers in Arizona and around the country become more and more conscious about the content and quality of their food, manufacturers have attempted to keep up with this mindset by offering labels that seem to make it easy to spot the highest quality products. With extra dollars at stake, marketers have utilized keywords, some with legal and regulated meaning, while others are misleading and somewhat deceptive. Here we will decode organic labeling, free-range and pasture-raised labeling, and grass-fed labeling.


The Organic Label


The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program regulates organic labeling. Organic is a claim made by the manufacturer stating that their product falls within strict guidelines for quality in growth and manufacturing. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture develops these standards, with the assistance of an advisory board complied of 15 Congressional appointees.1 There are farmers, processors, a retailer, a scientist, public and consumer advocates, environmentalists and a USDA-accredited certifying agent on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).1 The NOSB creates guidelines that the 55 domestic and 42 foreign accredited certifying agencies use to determine organic status.1


There are 4 different categories for organic labeling. They are 100 Percent Organic, organic, made with organic, or an ingredient panel only organic claim. 100 Percent Organic products have a complete “ingredient list, the name and address of the handler of the finished product, and name/seal of the organic certifier.”1 Products with organic labeling are held to a 95% organic standard. The label needs to identify which ingredients are organic and which are not, as well as the name of the organic certifier.1 The label “Made with Organic” means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.1 This label must also list which ingredients are organic, which are not, and the name of the organic certifier. Lastly, if less than 70% of the ingredients are of organic quality, a manufacturer may label the specific ingredients that are organic on the ingredient panel only.1 This packaging is not allowed to prominently display the word organic on the label, nor is it legal to display an organic certifier seal.1


Many people are confused by the difference in organic labeling and natural labeling. They feel interchangeable and many “natural” products are marketed to compete with organic products. The label of natural is not currently regulated by the USDA; therefore, it could mean very little, depending on the manufacturer.1


The Free-Range/Pasture-Raised Label


Many of us have seen the labels “free range” and “pasture raised” cropping up more and more on the labels of meat products at the grocery store, but what are they really telling us? The USDA regulates the “Free Range” label only as it applies to poultry, not eggs.2 As of right now there is no legal definition for any other use of this labeling and manufacturers use it at will to drive higher priced products into ever-more conscientious shoppers hands. Currently, the USDA defines “Free Range” as birds with outdoor access. This can mean anything from roaming in an open field, to birds having “pop holes” that do not allow the bird full body access to the outdoors.2 There is also no minimum space requirement for this labeling.2


In order for manufacturers to distinguish themselves for the humane treatment of their birds, some growers have opted to be “Certified Humane” by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). This label means that a farm adheres to their stricter standards for raising hens. The free-range label that accompanies the certified humane label means that each bird is given 2 sq. ft. of space, with field use rotation, and the birds must be outdoors 6 hours per day, weather permitting.2


The pasture raised label that is also certified humane by HFAC requires that there be no more than 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres of land and that the hens must be outside year-round, with protective housing provided so that hens can be indoors and protected at night or in poor weather.2 The HFAC set their standards based on the British Free Range Standard and is targeted at rotating the use of land to avoid soil degradation.2


The Grass-Fed Label


Grass-Fed labeling is one label that means just what is says! The USDA regulates the “Grass-Fed” label and has strict standards that an animal raised for this label must be only fed grass or foraged food, except when young animals consume milk before they are weaned.3 Although this label is great for farmers and consumers, the cost of labeling has excluded some smaller farmers from being able to afford the certification process. The USDA recognized this gap and has been working to create more opportunity for these small-scale farms to become certified. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) created the USDA Grass Fed Program for Small and Very Small Producers that helps to verify and certify grass-fed claims.3 This allows the small-scale farmers to market their product as “USDA Certified Grass Fed Beef.”3


As consumers, we have to pay close attention to the sometimes-murky waters of labeling. The food industry is continually a more crowded place, where marketing can utilize unregulated claims to ramp up prices and selling while small farms can be left behind due to the cost of certification. Whatever labels you chose to shop for your family, it is important to understand the regulations that give them, or do not give them meaning. To be safe, look for “certified” labels as this means that either the USDA or an accredited certifier is checking for the organic or grass fed quality the label promises.




  1. Organic Associations and Standards. Quality Assurance International. QAI. n.d. Web. 25 November 2015.
  2. “Free Range” and “Pasture Raised” officially defined by HFAC for Certified Humane label. Certified Humane. Certified Humane. 16 January 2014. Web. 25 November 2015.
  3. Expanding Opportunities for Small-Scale Beef Producers. Craig Morris. U.S. Department of Agriculture. 29 April 2014. Web. 25 November 2015.


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