Updated: Mar 14, 2020
Do you ever find yourself standing in the grocery store trying to decipher food labels? When it comes to your meat, poultry and eggs; “organic, “free range,” “grass-fed,” “hormone free,” etc. are buzzwords that can make a product stand out, but don’t always tell the whole story. Today we are going to ask the question: What do these labels really mean, and how do you as the consumer know the animal was raised humanely and the product is healthy?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the department of government responsible for these labels. In short, their role is in the production of meat, poultry and eggs. On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all processed foods created and sold in the U.S.—and produces a nutrition facts label for all of those foods. So, what does the USDA tell us through these various labels?
1. Natural “Natural” is a term that sounds appealing, but holds little weight in definition. It is broadly used and highly unregulated by the USDA. It describes a food that has been minimally processed and is free from synthetic dyes, preservatives, colorings, and flavorings. However, it can still include processed and highly toxic foods such as high fructose corn syrup. These animals can still be treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, and fed GMO* corn or soy. 
2. Free-Range Eggs Free-range eggs are produced by hens housed in a building or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and the outdoors during their laying cycle. It does not specify the environment of the hen before her laying cycle or that she even went outside during her lifetime. Oftentimes the door is small and unnoticed by the animals, and, their food is inside! Most hens will choose to stay inside and eat the grain rather than the grass and grubs outside. The term does not specify the outdoor conditions--pastures are permitted to be fenced in and covered in netting.
3. Cage-Free Eggs Cage-free is not too different from free-range. This USDA label requires eggs to be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food and water. They have the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle. The housing can be small and crowded and the animals not allowed out onto pasture.
4. Vegetarian Fed This is a very trendy label to stick on a packet of chicken. However, to the informed consumer, this marketing ploy won’t suck you in. Chickens are not meant to be vegetarian! They are designed to be omnivores. These chickens are fed fattening corn and soy...and, if it is not organic, it is definitely GMO corn and soy.
As our food industry grows, our government puts more and more regulations on the producer—but there are always loopholes. It is our job to ask good questions and do our research when we source food for ourselves and our families. When in doubt, invest in local sources of food; know your farmers and the values they uphold to proudly deliver the best product to their community.
Next time we will continue this discussion as we look at the labels “organic,” “grass-fed,” “grass-finished,” and “pasture raised”.
*A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. They are primarily used because they produce a higher yield of the crop, but they are a hazard to our health. Studies are still being conducted to determine the full impact of GMOs on our health, but primarily they can mess with our genes and gene expression. The Institute of Science and Society is quoted as saying, “It is clear that genetic modification is inherently hazardous, as it invariably results in unpredictable and uncontrollable changes in the genome and the epigenome (pattern of gene expression) that impact on safety.”