What do all those labels mean anyway?

By Candace Nelson - 8:00 AM

With healthy eating and buying local becoming trendy, more and more producers are slapping words like "free-range" and "all natural" on their food. And many consumers, assuming they're better, buy them, somewhat oblivious to the true definitions of those terms. I wanted to compile a list for easy reference.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates and defines food labeling as follows (from here):

Natural: Food labeled "natural," according to the USDA definition, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.
Regulations are fairly lenient for foods labeled "natural." Producers must submit a sort of application at the time of slaughter, detailing practices used throughout the life of the animal. Labels are evaluated to prevent mislabeling but no inspections are conducted and producers are not required to be certified.

All Natural: The USDA does not define foods labeled "all natural" as any different than those labeled "natural." Foods with this labeling are probably not any different than "natural" foods and may not be regulated as they are not defined by the USDA.

Organic: Foods labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved on the National List provided by the USDA. They can not be produced with any antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Each organic ingredient must be identified along with the name of the certifying agency. The USDA regulates organic product labels much more thoroughly than they do other product labels and, hence, foods labeled "organic" are more likely to actually be organic. Producers of organic foods must submit an application for certification. This application must include the type of operation, substance history for the past three years of operation, organic products to be grown, raised, and produced, and their plan for practices and substance use. Furthermore, they must keep records for five years after certification and make all information and records available to the National Organic Program (NOP), the division of the USDA which deals with organic production. Before certification, an on-site inspection is conducted with continuing annual and unannounced inspections after certification. If it is found that a product has been knowingly mislabeled, there is a civil penalty of up to $11,000.

100% Organic: Foods labeled "100% organic" must consist of only organic ingredients and processing aids. The same controls and regulations are put in place as those used for foods labeled "organic."

Made with Organic Ingredients: Foods with this labeling must consist of at least 70% organic ingredients and none of the ingredients can be produced with sewage-sludge based products or ionizing radiation. Labeling cannot include the USDA seal or the word "organic" in any principle displays. Three of the organic ingredients can be included on the label and all organic ingredients should be identified in the ingredients list. The same controls and regulations are put in place as those use for foods labeled "organic." For more information on organic labeling and marketing click here.

Free Range/Cage Free: For a product to be labeled "free range" or "cage free" the animals cannot be contained in any way and must be allowed to roam and forage freely over a large area of open land.
This labeling is very minimally regulated. USDA food labeling regulation only requires that the producer be able to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outside and not contained, but applications and certification are not required. This level of regulation has allowed producers to keep animals closely confined, but without cages, and still use the label "cage free." This issue is discussed in many articles and blogs such as those posted on GoVeg.com.

Grass Fed: Food labeled "grass fed" usually includes the label "free range" or "cage free," however, they are not necessarily connected. By definition a "grass fed" animal is one that is raised primarily on ranges rather than in a feedlot, which means that they can be contained and still show this label, as long as they are allowed to graze.  According to studies done by Northwestern Health Sciences University, grass fed products are usually preferred because the animals were probably not contained and the products are healthier than grain fed products. If an animal was "grain fed" it was most likely raised in a feedlot, contained for most of its life, and is of less nutritional value. The USDA defines "grass fed" as it applies to labeling but does not regulate it in any way.
While the USDA does regulate most food labels, they do not regulate all labels and, as with "free range" and "cage free" labels, they do not always do so as thoroughly as possible. Knowing this, along with the meaning of each label, will help consumers make healthier and more environmentally friendly decisions.

For more information visit the USDA website or any other links listed on this page.
The definitions above can be found in the USDA glossary of agricultural terms.

Here are some more: (Tom Schneller teaches meat identification and butchery at the Culinary Institute of America. Mark Kastel is co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute. According to this blog, Kastel said, “Well, some of those labels just mean whatever the marketer happens to want them to mean.” Some terms, like “organic,” have legal definitions and actual enforcement. Others have definitions but not much enforcement infrastructure.)

Pastured: What some producers and farmers call “pastured” chicken is much more in line what with many people think they’re getting with free range. This means that the birds are actually kept in coops at night, but are left to forage on grass, seeds, worms, etc., during the day. They might be fed grain as well, but they have access to a greater variety of food in their diet, and the result is much more richly flavored meat and eggs — and a much more humane life for the birds. It’s also much more expensive to raise chickens this way, because of the amount of space required and how that limits how many chickens you might be able to raise at a time. What’s more, chickens can quickly turn a field into a moonscape with their pecking, so true pastured chickens will often be moved around a very large pasture as areas they’ve torn up need time to regrow. Unfortunately, “pastured” isn’t a legal term yet, so consumers have to do their own research on the brands that use this label.

Naturally enhanced: According to Chef Schneller, this is a term that gets into a gray area. The chicken might be pumped up with a broth made from the bones of that animal. But it could also mean that sugar is added, or “natural flavoring,” whatever that might mean.

No hormones; No antibiotics: Actually, by law, hormones are not allowed at all in chicken production, so labels saying “no hormones” are just pure marketing. Antibiotics are a little more tricky, since they are allowed in conventional chicken production (not organic), but theoretically so long before the birds are turned into food that there should be no antibiotic residue in the finished product.

Air-chilled: This is a still-rare but increasingly popular technique. The vast majority of chicken is “water-processed,” meaning the meat is chilled in cold pools. But with that much meat going through these pools, the water has to be chlorinated to kill bacteria, so you might not really want that. (Realistically, you’ll get way more chlorine in you if you accidentally gulp down a little swimming pool water, but still.) Air chilling is a more time-consuming and more expensive process, but the chicken skips the chlorine dip. And many chefs report that air-chilled birds have better flavor and skin that gets crispier. Chef Schneller called it “a definite positive.”

Even more from the USDA:

BASTED or SELF BASTED: Bone-in poultry products that are injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances must be labeled as basted or self basted. The maximum added weight of approximately 3% solution before processing is included in the net weight on the label. Label must include a statement identifying the total quantity and common or usual name of all ingredients in the solution, e.g., "Injected with approximately 3% of a solution of ____________ (list of ingredients)." Use of the terms "basted" or "self-basted" on boneless poultry products is limited to 8% of the weight of the raw poultry before processing.

CERTIFIED: The term "certified" implies that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service have officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade, or other quality characteristics (e.g., "Certified Angus Beef"). When used under other circumstances, the term must be closely associated with the name of the organization responsible for the "certification" process, e.g., "XYZ Company's Certified Beef."

CHEMICAL FREE: The term is not allowed to be used on a label.

FRESH POULTRY: "Fresh" means whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes). This is consistent with consumer expectations of "fresh" poultry, i.e., not hard to the touch or frozen solid. In 1997, FSIS began enforcing a final rule prohibiting the use of the term "fresh" on the labeling of raw poultry products whose internal temperature has ever been below 26 °F. The temperature of individual packages of raw poultry products labeled "fresh" can vary as much as 1 °F below 26 °F within inspected establishments or 2 °F below 26 °F in commerce. Fresh poultry should always bear a "keep refrigerated" statement.

FROZEN POULTRY: Temperature of raw, frozen poultry is 0 °F or below.

FRYER-ROASTER TURKEY: Young, immature turkey usually less than 16 weeks of age of either sex.

HALAL and ZABIAH HALAL: Products prepared by federally inspected meat packing plants identified with labels bearing references to "Halal" or "Zabiah Halal" must be handled according to Islamic law and under Islamic authority.

HEN or TOM TURKEY: The sex designation of "hen" (female) or "tom" (male) turkey is optional on the label, and is an indication of size rather than the tenderness of a turkey.

KOSHER: "Kosher" may be used only on the labels of meat and poultry products prepared under rabbinical supervision.

"MEAT" DERIVED BY ADVANCED MEAT/BONE SEPARATION AND MEAT RECOVERY SYSTEMS: The definition of "meat" was amended in December 1994 to include as "meat" product derived from advanced meat/bone separation machinery which is comparable in appearance, texture and composition to meat trimmings and similar meat products derived by hand. Product produced by advanced meat recovery (AMR) machinery can be labeled using terms associated with hand-deboned product, e.g., "beef" or "pork" trimmings and ground "beef" or "pork." The AMR machinery cannot grind, crush or pulverize bones to remove edible meat tissue and bones must emerge essentially intact. The meat produced in this manner can contain no more than 150 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams product. Product that exceeds the calcium content limit must be labeled "mechanically separated beef or pork."

MECHANICALLY SEPARATED MEAT is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones with attached edible meat under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue. In 1982, a final rule published by FSIS on mechanically separated meat said it was safe and established a standard of identity for the food product. Some restrictions were made on how much can be used and the type of products in which it can be used. These restrictions were based on concerns for limited intake of certain components in MSM, like calcium. Due to FSIS regulations enacted in 2004 to protect consumers against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food. However, mechanically separated pork is permitted and must be labeled as "mechanically separated pork" in the ingredients statement.

MECHANICALLY SEPARATED POULTRY is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones with attached edible tissue through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since 1969. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it would be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as "mechanically separated chicken or mechanically separated turkey" (depending on the kind of poultry used) in the ingredients statement. The final rule became effective November 4, 1996.

OVEN PREPARED: Product is fully cooked and ready to eat.

YOUNG TURKEY: Turkeys of either sex that are less than 8 months of age according to present regulations.

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