Decoding Food Labels

Shopping for healthy, sustainably grown food can be a challenge. When buying eggs, what does that “Cage-Free” label really mean? Read on to learn which labels are just for show, which hold weight, and what they mean.

Don’t forget that farmers are usually happy to tell you about their farming and production methods. Try talking to vendors at your local farmer’s market to find out exactly how that egg was produced.

100% Vegetarian Diet; Vegetarian Fed Only (Not Reliable)

Not certified by an independent organization. Producers will say this to indicate that the livestock or poultry was not fed any animal by-products, only hay, grass, or grains, however, there is no guarantee that it is actually true. This label does not signify that the animal was raised on a pasture.

Bird Friendly (Reliable)

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center of the National Zoo has developed criteria and works with organic certification agencies that certify “Bird Friendly” coffee as organic and shade-grown, meaning that the coffee grows beneath a tree canopy that provides quality habitat for birds. This practice contrasts greatly with “sun coffee” where coffee bushes have few or no trees as shade and the crop is a relatively poor habitat for animal life.

Cage Free(Not Reliable)

Commonly seen on egg cartons, “Cage Free” indicates that eggs come from chickens that were not confined in cages, but the label is not highly regulated by the Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA. “Cage Free” does not necessarily mean that the birds were raised with adequate space or that they had access to the outdoors.

California Clean Growers Association(Reliable)

Members of the California Clean Growers Association are small family farms (100 acres or less), who must provide good working conditions for their employees and practice sustainable methods of agriculture, including restoring soil fertility and encouraging beneficial insects.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled (Reliable)

Humane Farm Animal Care, an independent non-profit organization, certifies eggs, dairy, meat, and poultry. Their Animal Care Standards require that animals are allowed to engage in their natural behaviors, have sufficient space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress, and have ample fresh water and a healthy diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Inspections are carried out annually.

Certified Organic (Reliable)

Farms and processors are inspected yearly by USDA-approved independent certifiers. These include California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Farm Verified Organic (FVO), Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), and Oregon Tilth. Certified organic means the food cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge, and cannot contain genetically modified organisms or be irradiated. For meat labeled organic, the animals must be fed only with organically grown feed without animal byproducts, and should be free of hormones and antibiotics. Animals must have access to the outdoors- although they don’t necessarily need to actually spend time outdoors. Here are some sub-categories of organic labeling:

  • “100% Organic”: 100% of the ingredients must be organic
  • “Organic”: For a USDA Certified Organic seal, the product must have at least 95% organic ingredients
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients”: Must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients, and list up to three organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel
  • Any product with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot print organic on their principal display panel, but may list organically produced ingredients in the ingredients list.

CORE Values Northeast (Reliable)

Northeast apple growers have partnered with Mothers and Others, along with Cooperative Extension and university agriculture scientists to form Northeast Stewardship Alliance (NESA). Their label is CORE (Communities Organized in Respect for the Environment) Values Northeast. NESA growers pledge to use an environmentally responsible growing system based on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), minimizing the use of pesticides.

Country of Origin Labeling (Reliable)

Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) was passed in Congress in 2002 but delayed for several years, with the exception of seafood. It is expected to be implemented in October 2008 for produce, peanuts, beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and goat. COOL would allow consumers who are concerned about lenient pesticide regulations in other countries or mad cow disease to make more informed decisions about their produce and meat purchases. It could also simplify the process of tracing an outbreak of disease.

Demeter Certified Biodynamic ® (Reliable)

The concept of Biodynamic® farming, developed in the 1920s, views the farm holistically as a living organism and emphasizes contributing to natural resources instead of depleting them.  Biodynamic® products must be produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, genetic engineering, and all other requirements of a certified organic label.

When meat is labeled Biodynamic®, there were no animal by-products used in the livestock feed.

Dolphin-Safe (Reliable)

The Earth Island Institute “Dolphin Safe” labeled tuna fish must adhere to the following standards:

  1. No intentional chasing, netting, or encirclement of dolphins during an entire tuna fishing trip.
  2. No use of drift gill nets to catch tuna.
  3. No accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets.
  4. No mixing of dolphin-safe and dolphin-deadly tuna in individual boat wells (for accidental kill of dolphins), or in processing or storage facilities.
  5. Each trip in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean by vessels 400 gross tons and above must have an independent observer on board attesting to the compliance with points 1 though 4 above.

Fair Trade Certified (Reliable)

Ensures that farmers receive fair prices, workers receive fair wages, and enables more direct access to the global market. TransFair USA certifies coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa, chocolate, bananas, sugar, rice, vanilla, flowers, and honey, based on the principles of fair prices, fair labor conditions, direct trade, community development, and environmental sustainability. 

Food Alliance Certified (Reliable)

Food Alliance certifies farmers, ranchers, food processors, packers, and distributors for sustainable agriculture practices and social responsibility. The Food Alliance logo ensures that employees have safe and fair working conditions, animals are treated humanely, and there is no use of hormones, non-therapeutic antibiotics, or genetically modified crops. Environmental standards include the use of integrated pest management to reduce pesticide use, and the conservation of soil, water, and wildlife habitat. Food processors must use ingredients certified by Food Alliance, conserve water and energy, and reduce waste, among other requirements. Continual improvement of management practices is also necessary.

Free Range/Free Roaming (Not Reliable)

“Free range” suggests that a meat or poultry product (including eggs) came from an animal that was able to roam outdoors. However, the USDA only regulates the term “free range” for poultry, not beef or eggs, and birds are only required to have access to the outdoors, which could be a concrete feedlot. The USDA considers 5 minutes of outdoor time each day to be sufficient. This claim is not verified by an independent third party.

Grain-Fed (Not Always Reliable)

This term suggests that livestock have been fed a diet of grain, but it does not guarantee that the animals were only fed grain- the feed could include animal byproducts and other matter. See here for information on grain fed vs. grass-fed beef.

Grass-Fed (Not Always Reliable)

The grass-fed label on meat means that the ruminant animal (cow or lamb) has been raised on a diet consisting wholly of grasses, hay, and forage. The grass-fed claim is only reliable if the product has a “USDA Process Verified” shield; otherwise, the verification is only voluntary. See here for information on the environmental and health benefits of grass-fed meats.

Healthy Grown (Reliable)

Wisconsin potatoes with the “Healthy Grown” label are certified by a third-party verifier, Protected Harvest. “Healthy Grown” potatoes are grown with reduced pesticides through Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, and growers are also required to participate in ecosystem conservation by restoring or maintaining a non-agricultural piece of land.

Hormone Free, No Hormones Administered, No Added Hormones

(Not Always Reliable)

The use of added hormones in hogs and poultry is banned by the USDA, so any such label on these meats does not signify that the producer went above and beyond the standard. The use of a “Hormone-Free” label on meats is prohibited by the USDA, but “No Hormones Administered” and “No Added Hormones” on beef are meant to signify that no hormones were given to the animals. However, these claims are not verified by an independent organization unless otherwise stated.

rBGH-free, rBST-free: Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is a synthetic growth hormone given to cows to increase milk production. Certified organic milk and dairy products are rBGH-free, but there is no third-party certification for dairy products simply labeled “rBGH-free.” The next best assurance is milk that comes from dairies whose suppliers have signed affidavits declaring that they do not use rBGH. Check out the National Geographic Green Guide for a list of milk brands without rBGH.

Cheeses and other dairy products from Canada, France, Italy, Ireland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Greece, New Zealand, and Australia are all rBGH-free since the hormone is not approved in these countries. As rBGH cannot be used on goats and sheep, dairy products from these animals are also rBGH-free.

Marine Stewardship Council (Reliable)

Seafood bearing this logo comes from fisheries that have been assessed by an independent certifier and found to meet the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) environmental standard for sustainable fishing. During the MSC assessment the certifier examines many aspects of the fishery including the condition of the fish stocks, the impact of the fishery on the marine environment, and the fishery management systems. Read more at

Natural or All Natural (Not Reliable and/or Misleading)

There are no standards for these labels, with the exception of meat and poultry products. For meat and poultry, the USDA defines natural as, “ A product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product.)”1 In addition, the product must also bear a statement explaining the use of the term, such as “no artificial ingredients.” While the USDA has defined “natural” and can enforce its appropriate use, there is no verification system for certifying meat as “natural.”

No Antibiotics Administered, Raised without Antibiotics (Not Always Reliable)

For meat and poultry, the USDA has defined “No Antibiotics Administered” to mean that the animal was raised without low-level or therapeutic doses of antibiotics. Unless there is an organization identified as a third-party certifier, there is no organization backing the claim other than the producer.

No Chemicals Added (Not Reliable and/or Misleading)

This statement is not backed by any reliable certification system, and it may be deceptive. For instance, antibiotics are not considered chemicals, and meat with this label could have been given antibiotics.

Northeast Eco Apple Project (Reliable)

Distributed by Red Tomato, Eco Apples are grown with minimal use of toxic pesticides. Eco Apples are certified by a third-party inspector based on requirements in the following categories: soil and water conservation, pesticide use and hazard reduction, grower education and self-improvement, food safety and product quality, energy conservation, and recycling.

NutriClean Residue Free Certification (Possibly Misleading)

This label is based on an independent certification system that tests for pesticide residues. Although the label seems to indicate that there are no pesticide residues on labeled products, NutriClean sets a limit for the amount of allowable pesticide residue. For some pesticides, the NutriClean limit is the same as the limit set by the EPA, so the product is not any more environmentally friendly than an unlabeled product.

Pasture-Raised (Not Always Reliable)

This term implies that cattle were raised outdoors with access to pasture and allowed to engage in natural behaviors. However, the USDA currently does not have standards for this term, so it is a subjective label determined by the producer.

Rainforest Alliance Certified ™ (Reliable)

This label from an independent certifier shows that crops have been grown sustainably and workers were treated justly. Products bearing this seal (such as bananas, coffee, cocoa, and tea) are certified based on the Sustainable Agriculture Standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). Farms are audited annually and surprise audits are carried out for certified farms at least once a year. The standards are based on ten categories:

  1. Social and Environmental Management System
  2. Ecosystem Conservation
  3. Wildlife Protection
  4. Water Resource Conservation
  5. Fair Treatment and Good Working Conditions for Workers
  6. Occupational Health and Safety
  7. Good Community Relations
  8. Integrated Crop Management
  9. Soil Management and Conservation
  10. Complete, Integrated Waste Management

Salmon Safe (Reliable)

Salmon Safe is an independent nonprofit that certifies West Coast farms, vineyards, municipal park systems, and corporate and university campuses as protecting salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest by employing management practices that protect streams and rivers.  For farms, there are six categories in the certification standards, including water use management, erosion and sediment control, chemical use management, and animal management.

Seafood Safe (Somewhat Reliable, Possibly Misleading)

This label notifies consumers of the amount of fish that is safe to consume at a particular contaminant level, based on EPA recommendations. The two main contaminants measured are mercury and PCBs. The label shows how many four-ounce servings per month of a particular fish product are safe to eat for women of childbearing age. The actual labeled fish is not tested, but samples of the same species, from the same location and of the same size, are tested in independent laboratories. “Seafood Safe” is funded by EcoFish, a sustainably-harvested seafood distributor which raises concerns about conflict of interest. However, testing is done by independent companies and the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund converts the data from testing into the recommended number of servings.

Wild-caught (Somewhat Reliable)

Starting in 2005, Country of Origin Labeling rules require unprocessed seafood sold at supermarkets to be labeled as wild-caught or farm-raised. The wild-caught label is not always reliable, as shown by a Consumer Reports study that found 7 out of the 17 samples of salmon bought in the off-season that claimed to be wild-caught were actually farm-raised. All of the samples bought during salmon season (summer) labeled wild were correctly labeled.

Scroll to top