What’s in a word? The language of food labels


Organic, natural, cage free, free range — the language of food labels is confusing for farmers and consumers alike.

Which words best describe your farm products? Which are free use, and which require certification approval?

Learning the language of food labels allows farmers to communicate with customers about their products. Food labels like Certified Organic can make your products stand out in a crowded marketplace, and reveal their true value to customers. Labels can help customers make purchasing decisions in line with their goals to eat healthier, boost the local economy or go green.

Organic. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) verifies farms through certifying agents and approves use of the Certified Organic Label. Organic food must be grown from organic seed. Organic animal products come from animals fed organic feed. Certified Organic products are not genetically modified.

Natural products are minimally processed and do not contain artificial ingredients or colors. Natural must be defined on a statement on the label.

Certified Naturally Grown is a peer-review certification. Like Certified Organic products, Certified Naturally Grown products are non-GMO and grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, http://www.cngfarming.org/.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism that has been scientifically modified to achieve a desired trait. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate GMOs. In July 2016, a federal standard to label genetically modified food was signed into law; implementation timeline and information is available on the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website.

Non-GMO. The non-profit Non-GMO Project provides a label for verified products. Products bearing the label are made without GM ingredients, not grown from GM seed, and not from livestock fed GM feed. For more information visit, http://www.nongmoproject.org/.

Free range. According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, free range poultry has access to shelter and the outside.

Cage free poultry has access shelter and freedom to roam within an area; the area may be enclosed.

No hormones. Current federal regulations do not allow hormones in pork or poultry production. Beef producers must provide documentation that no hormones were used during production.

No antibiotics. Producers must provide the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service with documentation that antibiotics have not been administered (FSIS Aug 2015).

Chemical free is not allowed on labels.

Grassfed. In 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service stopped verifying grassfed livestock operations. However, American Grassfed is an independent agency certification that approves use of the American Grassfed Label. Meat bearing the American Grassfed Label is from American livestock raised on grass and forage, without hormones and antibiotics.

Pastured raised. The USDA does not have a pasture raised label policy.

Humane. The USDA does not regulate use of the term. Animal Welfare Approved is an organization that provides animal husbandry standards, certification and an official label.

Sustainable describes production practices that enrich the environment, animals and humans overtime. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and the Rainforest Alliance certify farms that employ sustainable production practices.

Locally grown. The USDA does not define local. Most states have an approved logo for products made and grown within their borders. Ohio Proud helps consumers find food and agriculture products made and grown near home.

Some farmers markets require products are made and grown within a distance of the market. Many farm to table restaurants print the name and location of producer farms on the menu. Local food hubs may list and link to producer partners on their website to provide transparency.

100% Pure is not a regulated term, but the FSIS Compliance Guidance for Label Approval advises “pure” is claimed truthful and not to mislead to consumers (Nov 2015).

Low-fat/cholesterol/sugar/sodium. The FDA Food Labeling Guide defines thresholds for all health, nutrient and function claims that may appear on packaging.

The Ohio State University Wilbur A. Gould Food Industries Center provides nutrition facts panel, ingredient statement, and allergen declaration for food products, http://foodindustries.osu.edu/nutrition-labeling.

Grade. The USDA grades eggs, dairy, meat, fruits, vegetables and specialty items. Grades verify quality, production practices, and product values. Download factsheet “A Guide to AMS Grade Shields, Value-Added Labels, and Official Seals,” https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/AMS%20Product%20Label%20Factsheet.pdf.


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