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RAISING CLAIMS

From cage-free to fair trade, the real meaning of food labels

Three cartons of Pete's organic eggs stacked on one another.
Reuters/Gary Cameron
What is the difference between organic versus non-organic eggs?
  • Michelle Cheng
By Michelle Cheng

Reporter based in New York

Published Last updated

Do Good Foods is a startup that produces “carbon-reduced” chicken. But what exactly does that mean? The company says that its chickens eat feed sourced from grocery store surpluses. Do Good Foods claims each chicken product will prevent four pounds of food waste from being sent to a landfill, helping to reduce carbon emissions. On its site, the company says it is the “first US chicken brand with “verified carbon-reduced benefits.’”

Do Good Foods worked with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the US Department of Agriculture, to receive approval on the carbon-reduced claim on its packaging and marketing materials. “The Do Good Foods ‘closed loop system’ takes nutritious, surplus grocery foods, after community donations have occurred, and turns it into a nutrient-dense animal feed that is used to grow high-quality chickens,” the company wrote in a statement to Quartz. “The surplus food would have ended up in a landfill or other less valuable destination than feeding animals.” The impact, it says, is quantifiable—each chicken diverts 4 lbs of food waste.

Carbon reduced is just one of the many food label terms, which total at least 450, customers may come across at the grocery store. In 2021, the three most popular labeling claims on fresh foods in the US, defined as poultry, seafood, and produce, were natural, no antibiotics, and no artificial additives, according to Euromonitor, a data analytics firm. Companies will often come up with their own labeling like Mondelez’s Cocoa Life, a global sustainable program aimed at improving cocoa farmers’ lives, or Starbucks’ CAFE Practices, a program to source ethically-grown coffee.

The intentions may be good, but the effects may be less so. In 2021, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Hormel Foods, which produces Spam as well as Applegate cold cuts, for allegedly misleading customers with its “natural” label.

The proliferation of labels can make it difficult for customers to decipher what’s meaningful and what’s not, and many are merely marketing, without actual industry or federal oversight.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the most common food labels, and what they mean.

Natural

What it means: The USDA says a food labeled as natural contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is only “minimally processed,” meaning that the processing of the food does not fundamentally alter the product. But a natural food product is not necessarily healthier, or organically grown, and can legally contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Regulation: The USDA must approve labels (pdf) bearing natural claims. 

What you’ll see it on: The label can be found on products ranging from peanut butter to cereal.

Organic

What it means: Meat, produce, poultry, eggs, and dairy products labeled as organic mean they come from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Produce must be grown without certain pesticides and herbicides, among other requirements.

Regulation: The USDA says that produce can be called organic if it’s been grown in soil that has had no prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, applied for three years prior to harvest. For meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their “natural behaviors” such as the ability to graze on pasture, fed 100% organic feed, and not given antibiotics or hormones.

What you’ll see it on: The most commonly purchased organic food are fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat.

Gluten-free

What it means: Gluten is a protein that gives bread and other grain products their shape and texture. The label gives people, especially those with celiac disease, an auto-immune reaction to eating gluten, a way to avoid foods that may cause serious symptoms, which are largely gastrointestinal. Some 3 million Americans have celiac disease.

Regulation: The USDA states that foods labeled gluten-free must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

What you’ll see it on: It’s most often, and most meaningfully on breads, cakes, cereals, pastas, and other wheat-based foods, but it can also be found on everything from ice cream to cosmetics.

Cage-free

What it means: Cage-free hens are not kept in cages; they are raised in enclosed facilities like a barn or poultry house. The facility could be very small and crowded with little room to move about. It does not mean that animals are free to roam in pastures or they had access to the outdoors.

Regulation: Eggs marketed as cage-free must be source-verified by the USDA through twice annual onsite farm visits to check that the laying hens are housed in appropriate production systems.

What you’ll see it on: Eggs.

Free range

What it means: Unlike cage-free, “free range” refers to animals allowed to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, have access to fresh food and water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced or covered with netting-like material.

Regulation: Yes, the process is verified by the USDA.

What you’ll see it on: Eggs, chicken, beef.

Fair trade

What it means: The goal of fair trade products is to provide safer working conditions, stronger environmental protection, and more sustainable livelihoods—and can be applied in various industries from food to clothing. In the coffee industry, for instance, the certification guarantees a minimum price to coffee producers, which most of the time, is higher than the market price, Kim Elena Ionescu, the chief sustainability officer for the Specialty Coffee Association, told NPR. Fair trade works almost exclusively with cooperatives of small farmers. Companies may also use profits from fair trade goods to to invest in things like health insurance or to provide employees with bicycles.

Regulation: Fair trade is not regulated by the USDA. Fair Trade USA certifies many products for the US market, as does Fairtrade International.

What you’ll see it on: Primarily on coffee, chocolate, bananas, and tea, but it shows up all over the grocery store and beyond.

Non-GMO

What it means: GMO, which stands for genetically modified organism, refers to crops that have been genetically modified in the lab. Non-GMO means that the food does not contain any ingredients from such GMO crops.

Regulation: No, the USDA does not certify foods to be bioengineered or non-bio engineered.

What you’ll see it on: It’s most often found on corn-based products like tortilla chips, but it pops up all over the grocery store.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the USDA had no role in defining Do Good Foods carbon reduced label. 

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