Organically grown foods are becoming more widely available as consumer demand increases. Nationally, more than 3/4's of all grocery stores carry at least some organic products. The number of organic specialty stores and farmers markets around the country is growing by leaps and bounds.
What does that label mean?
Farmers who gross less than $5000 from organic products and sell directly to consumers or retailers are exempt from inspection and certification requirements. They must, however, comply with practices approved by the National Organic Standards. Those farmers may call their product organic, but they can't use the USDA seal.
Other labels may also include words such as “natural,” “hormone-free,” “free-range,” “sustainable,” “antibiotic-free,” “pesticide-free,” “grass-fed,” “healthy,” or “fresh.” Many of these terms can have more than one meaning. These labels may or may not have been verified by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Natural. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service defines “natural” as used on a food label to mean that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term (such as: no added colorings; minimally processed).
Naturally Raised. January of 2009 the USDA approved a voluntary “naturally raised” meat label. According to the USDA, “naturally raised” means that no growth hormones, antibiotics were used nor were animal by-products fed to these animals. The rule does not contain any restrictions on livestock handling, living conditions, the feeding of grains or grain by-products, or access to pasture.
Grass-fed. According to the USDA, meat labelled as gress-fed must have been raised on grass, hay or other forages after weaning. They must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. The feeding of grains, grain by-products and animal by-products are prohibited. Grass-fed labelling does not prohibit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.
Fresh. According to the USDA’s labeling rules “fresh” simply means that the meat has never been completely frozen. Poultry labelled “fresh” can be stored at 26 degrees, its freezing point.
No Hormones. Beef may be labelled “no hormones administered” but the producer must be able to prove to the Food Safety and Inspection Service that none have been used. The use of hormones is prohibited in the raising of poultry and pork. The claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
Antibiotic-Free. According to the USDA labeling rules, “no antibiotics added” may be used for meat or poultry products if the producer can prove the claim that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
Pesticide-Free. The term "pesticide-free" has no precise meaning, and food with that label may be any of several types. It might have been grown without pesticides, similar to organically grown food, but not grown organically in other ways. It might have been tested before it reached the market and certified to contain no detectable pesticide residues.
GMO-Free. Food labeled GMO-Free may have been grown with non-gmo seeds or it may have been tested and show no detectable presence of altered genetic material. Some products, such as oils, are labelled GMO-Free even though they may or may not have been made from genetically altered crops. The resulting oil contains few proteins and therefore no detectable levels of altered genetics are present.
Sustainable. There is no single definition for sustainable agriculture. There are organizations such as the Food Alliance that have set standards and certify that participating farmers meet those standards of production. Sustainable standards may or may not allow the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Consumers should check the standards of the specific certifying agency to understand what those criteria are.
Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved. Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved and other programs seek to insure that farm animals are treated in as humane manner as possible both on the farm and in the slaughter plant. Standards vary as do verification and certification procedures.