The labels on our food, from organic vegetables to USDA-inspected meat to cage-free eggs, can be confusing. How much do food labels actually tell you?
We all have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s produced, and where it’s from. But food companies are often not required to give us the information we want to know. The current rules on food labeling leave a lot of room for vague claims that make it difficult to differentiate between food produced by sustainable farmers using humane practices, and corporate agribusinesses greenwashing their products.
As a result, the array of labels found on meat, milk, and eggs can be overwhelming. You can and should be informed what current labeling practices really mean and how they affect you – and this guide will help.
But we also need labels that are accurate and useful, and we won’t get them unless we tell our elected officials to put our interests ahead of those of corporations.
How Useful Are Food Labels?
These labels tell you something meaningful about your food and where it came from – though they may not mean quite what you think.
Right now the most meaningful label on your food, in terms of upholding specific government requirements, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal. For a product to be certified organic, it’s required to meet specific standards:
- Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.
- Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated.
- Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
- Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (hoofed animals, including cows) must have access to pasture.
- Animals cannot be cloned.
Country of Origin Labels
For now, the United States requires Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on chicken, seafood, produce and some nuts that tells us basic information about what country our food was produced in – but the food industry has limited even this most basic element of transparency. Until late 2015, beef and pork were also covered by mandatory country of origin labeling rules. But the meat industry pressured Congress to repeal the labeling requirement. This labeling for meat is regularly under attack. Most developed countries, including many in the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, Australia and Brazil, require country of origin labeling in addition to requiring food producers to label products with GMO ingredients.
A USDA inspection seal means that your food meets certain quality standards and has been inspected by USDA employees or company employees under USDA supervision to rank its quality.
All USDA-inspected meat and poultry (the vast majority of the meat in grocery stores) should have a USDA seal of inspection and a code for the producing establishment. Meat and egg labels with a grade (such as USDA Grade A beef or Jumbo eggs) are graded based on quality and size, not production methods, so this seal tells you nothing about the company’s practices.
Private certification programs also exist, but they vary in standards, and it’s a good idea to do some research on their standards.
Treated with Irradiation
In grocery stores, food that has been irradiated must be labeled and marked with a radura symbol. Unfortunately, this labeling policy does not apply to restaurants, schools, hospitals, or processed foods containing irradiated ingredients.
Food Labels That Give Limited Information
“Cage free” means that birds are raised without cages, but it tells you nothing about any other living conditions. For instance, cage-free eggs could come from birds raised indoors in overcrowded spaces at large factory farms.
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. This traditional farming method is typically done on a smaller scale than conventional factory-farmed animals. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much of its life the animal spent on pasture.
“Grass-fed” means that, after weaning, an animal’s primary source of food comes from grass or forage, not from grains such as corn. There are no uniform government standards for this label, although some companies submit their own standards to the USDA so they can put a grassfed claim on their products. Some third party certifications also use a grass-fed claim. This does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were used on the animal or what conditions it lived in.
“Raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered” means that the animal received no antibiotics over its lifetime. Some large-scale producers feed animals antibiotics at low doses to promote growth and prevent disease, which is linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may make people sick and are difficult to treat – a serious threat to public health. Other producers use antibiotics only to treat sick animals. This label does not tell you about other conditions where the animal was raised.
If an animal receives antibiotics for any reason, its meat, milk or eggs cannot be labeled “certified organic.”
The labels “raised without added hormones,” “no hormones administered” or “no synthetic hormones” all mean that the animal received no synthetic hormones. Hormone-free labels do not disclose what the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture.
Federal law prohibits the use of hormones on hogs and poultry. Any hormone-free label on pork and poultry products is intended to mislead shoppers into thinking that the product is worthy of a higher price. The USDA requires that these labels on pork or poultry include a disclaimer: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry/pork.”
However, federal regulations do permit the use of hormones in beef and dairy cattle. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) is a synthetic growth hormone commonly injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. Several hormones are used in beef cattle to speed up growth.
Thanks to years of activism, “RBGH-free” or “rBST-free” labels can now be used on milk products to indicate that the cows did not receive synthetic hormones. However, due to pressure from Monsanto and the dairy industry, such labels on dairy products usually come with a disclaimer that the FDA acknowledges no difference between milk produced with or without the hormone.
Misleading Food Labels
Labels on seafood are frequently misleading – for example, you may see organic labels on fish, but there is no U.S. government standard for “organic” seafood certification. Learn more about what to look for in our Seafood Buying Guide.
“Free range” labels are regulated by the USDA only for poultry produced for meat – it’s not regulated for pigs, cattle or egg-producing chickens. Nor are the requirements very high: poultry can use the label if the chicken had any access to the outdoors each day for some unspecified period of time; it could be just a few minutes, and does not assure that the animal ever actually went outdoors to roam freely.
Natural and Naturally Raised
According to USDA, “natural” meat and poultry products cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients, and they should be “minimally processed.” However, this label does not tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed, if antibiotics or hormones were used, or other aspects of production that consumers might logically expect from something labeled “natural.”
Contrary to what you might expect, the label “fresh” is used only on poultry to indicate that the meat was not cooled below 26 degrees F. Poultry does not have to be labeled as “frozen” until it reaches zero degrees F. This can be misleading to customers who assume that label means meat has not been frozen, processed or preserved in any way. The USDA does not define or regulate the use of the “fresh” label on any other type of products.
Missing: GMO Labels
Many of the processed foods available in our grocery stores include genetically engineered ingredients. GMOs have been altered at the genetic level by adding genetic material from different species or making other changes that couldn’t happen through traditional breeding. Despite the industry’s claims, there is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of these foods and the weak approval process for new GMO crops relies solely on testing by the companies that want to sell these new crops.
Even though 90% of Americans want labels on GMO foods, in July 2016 Congress passed a federal law blocking states from requiring GMO labeling. This law overturns strong state laws like Vermont’s, and instead allows for GMOs to potentially be labeled with 800-numbers or QR codes. That’s not easy for people to understand, and it’s not a substitute for clear labels.
We’ve created a guide to understanding what foods are most likely to contain GMOs, but without clear, on-package labels, there’s no way to know for sure.
That’s why we’re pushing to require clear labels on all foods with GMO ingredients. Only by standing up for transparency in our food will we get the information we want.