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Organic Consumers Association

What do Food Labels Really Mean?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Myth of Natural page.

Food labels are packed with information, but some of the common claims and terms found on food labels can be very confusing - if not downright misleading. For example, a dozen eggs in a carton boasting the statement, "natural" can legally come from an industrial farm where hens are permanently confined, fed antibiotics and never see a blade of grass - much less roam and forage the way a chicken does "naturally."

So how do you know if a food label is accurate - or even true? Fortunately some of the terms and claims used on food labels are legally defined. And in some cases the claims are independently audited (as with Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Organic and American Grassfed Association). However, in most cases the terms and claims used on food labels are not verified at all. In such cases you may wish to request further information from the supplier to ensure that the product really does meet your expectations.

To help make sense of the bewildering range of claims and terms, definitions for common claims are provided below. For a comprehensive labeling guide see AWA's Food Labeling for Dummies, available for free download here. For more information on the benefits of grassfed foods and farming, see AWA's Grassfed Primer, also available for free download here.

Animal Welfare Approved

Independent third-party certification. Animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range on true family farms with the "most stringent" welfare standards according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals in both 2008 and 2009 reports. The standards are developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers and farmers and incorporate best practice and recent research. Annual audits by experts in the field cover birth to slaughter. Species include beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs, poultry (chicken, turkey and duck), sheep, goats, rabbits and bison.

Cage Free

No legal or regulated definition. This term is most often applied to egg laying hens, not to poultry raised for meat. As the term implies, the hens are raised without using cages. However, "cage free" does not explain if the birds had access to the outside and the reality is that most "cage free" hens live inside large barns or warehouses in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions (see image below). Practices such as beak cutting are also permitted. No independent third-party verification.


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