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16 Food Labels and What They Mean

From fair trade to free range, learn what the labels mean and how certifying your farm’s products can help you set yourself apart from the crowd.

By Carol Ekarius

16 Food Labels and What They Mean
Photo by Rachael Brugger
The "cage free" label on eggs means chickens are not kept in a cage, but you shouldn't assume they have outdoor access without talking to the farmer.

Think of walking down a market aisle. There are labels on almost every product there. From fair trade to free range, those labels help the consumer decipher a wealth of information about the products: what’s in them, how they were made, where they came from. That information can help them make educated buying decisions.

As a producer, you'll want to learn what these food labels mean, choose which ones you want to include on your label and and decipher how certifying your farm's products can help you set your product apart from the crowd.

Below are a selection of common food labels and what they mean. Use them to help inform your buying and production decisions.

1. All Natural
USDA recognized claim for products that are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, including but not limited to artificial colors or flavors. The label must explain the use of the term "natural,” such as, "No added colorings or artificial ingredients." No third-party certifier exists, but producers must be able to show evidence that their product meets the claim.

2. Biodynamic
Products are certified by third party as grown using biodynamic principals. www.demeter-usa.org

3. Cage Free
"Cage Free" is generally applied to egg cartons; chickens are not kept in a cage, but they don’t necessarily have access to the outdoors. No third-party certifier exists, but producers must be able to show evidence that their birds are not caged.

4. Certified Humane
Meat sold under this label must come from animals must be treated in a humane manner. Under the program, growth hormones are prohibited and animals are raised on a diet without antibiotics, but antibiotics can be used in the treatment of sick animals. www.certifiedhumane.org

5. Fair Trade
The Fair Trade label is primarily applied to imported agricultural products that meet strict labor and sustainability standards. Certification ensures that farmers and workers are fairly compensated for their products. www.fairtradeusa.org  

6. Forest Stewardship Council
The Forest Stewardship Council is a third-party-certified sustainable-forestry program. Certification ensures forests are being managed to the highest environmental and social standards according to 10 FSC principles. www.fscus.org

7. Free Range
Generally applied to egg cartons and chicken products, the "Free Range" label indicates that birds have some access to the outdoors but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have access to pasture. No third-party certifier exists, but producers must be able to show evidence that their birds are allowed access to the outdoors.

8. Fresh Poultry
The term "fresh" on the labeling of raw poultry products means that the carcass has never been frozen or reduced to an internal temperature below 26 degrees F. No third-party certifier exists, but producers must be able to show evidence that their birds are sold fresh.

9. Grassfed
Producers using a grassfed label will need to meet third-party certification standards as governed by the USDA. However, the American Grassfed Association's (www.americangrassfed.org) American Grassfed label applies even stricter requirements, including that animals must have regular access to pasture appropriate to the species. Under the USDA-approved label, animals can be fed silage.

10. Heart Check Symbol
The Heart Check Symbol is a label made and certified by the American Heart Association; producers who meet AHA guidelines and participate in their certification program may use the heart-check symbol on their labels.

11. Kosher
Products may only be labeled as kosher if prepared under Rabbinical supervision. No third-party certifier exists, but producers must be able to show evidence that their products meet the Kosher rule.

12. Leaping Bunny
The Leaping Bunny label is used on cosmetics to indicate that products were not tested on animals. This label is granted by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics. www.leapingbunny.org

13. Local or State Identifiers
Many states allow producers to apply for the right to label their products with a local or state-grown label. Contact your state's department of agriculture to learn about such programs in your area.

14. Predator Friendly
Producers who are certified as Predator Friendly have made a commitment not to allow any lethal control (shooting, trapping, poisoning) to protect their sheep and cattle from native predators. www.predatorfriendly.com

15. Salmon Safe
Certified products from Salmon-Safe, a nonprofit in the Pacific Northwest recognizing fish-friendly farms and products that keep salmon running the rivers, mean the farm or facilities used to process the product use practices that protect water quality and restore habitat. www.salmonsafe.org

16. USDA Organic
All products now labeled as organic must meet USDA requirements and be certified by one of the third-party certifying organizations around the country. www.ams.usda.gov/nop


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16 Food Labels and What They Mean

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Reader Comments
Thanks, I wasn't aware of the "Salmon Safe" and "Predator Friendly" labels. In response to Delicia, she does have a great point that the USDA organics program is not perfect and, like anything, should always try to improve. However, raw milk is NOT safe. Pasteurization was invented for a reason, and it has been used for more than 100 years for that reason. Drinking raw milk is like playing Russian roulette. Would you eat food off your bathroom floor? That's kind of what drinking raw milk is like.
Ellen, Madison, WI
Posted: 7/26/2015 7:11:41 AM
I guess I have to play the devils advocate for a moment. I suppose if someone really wanted to get around something such as Free Range and only allowing 10 minutes it's my guess they could. Hopefully they will not for the sake of not only the animal and consumer but also for their own sake as a reputable and moral person. I didn't know about the Jumping Bunny and some of the detailed info. I found this article very interesting.My only wish is that farmers, be they produce or meat type, could sell their products on site, organic, without constant harassment from USDA. Take for example unpasteurized milk from grass fed, antibiotic and steroid free cows. This milk is by far healthier than the boiled, diseased milk sold in stores and should be allowed to be sold {and monitored} across the USA. Organic healthy meat is so expensive because the farmer has to actually ship his livestock to an USDA facility for processing then back again which is not cheap nor is it environmentally conscious either because of the gas emissions. I believe that the USDA and their affiliates should take a better look at what they can do to encourage more wholesome food from the "clean" farmer and help to make it more cost effective.As for labeling all I can say is the labeling should be spot on and true to what it states.
Delicia, Canisteo, NY
Posted: 8/10/2013 4:13:21 PM
Thanks for the clarification.
Galadriel, Lothlorien, ME
Posted: 5/2/2013 11:55:59 PM
Lots of information
Amy, Sophia, NC
Posted: 12/25/2010 3:42:04 PM
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