Posted by: Hil | November 15, 2009

Food Jargon: a Shopper’s Glossary

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a very agricultural area. One of the results of this is that I am extremely skeptical of environmental, health, and animal-welfare claims on food labels. I learned things about food production from talking to friends and family that many people don’t learn until someone like Michael Pollan comes along and writes an expose. I knew, for example, that chickens that spent their whole lives in poultry barns were rendered magically “free range” if someone left a door open, even if the birds never went through it. I have a lot of respect for conventional farmers, but I have no patience for producers—conventional or organic—who try to trick consumers about the conditions under which their food was produced.

More and more people are becoming interested in purchasing food, especially animal products, from sustainable, humane operations rather than factory farms. This is a great thing—we have the power to vote with our dollars, and even a small shift toward more sustainable food sources will definitely be noticed. We will have much more influence, however, if we do our homework and don’t blindly trust labels. Many common labels applied to food are not regulated by the USDA, and those that are regulated often have extremely minimal definitions. So let’s take a look at some of the most common terms you’ll see on a label.


Unlike many claims you find on food labels, the term “organic” is regulated by the USDA and actually has a meaning. Certified organic producers are audited routinely to make sure they are complying with the appropriate regulations. Certified organic producers have to comply with a long list of regulations, but to summarize, organic foods are grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage or genetically modified ingredients. Organic animals are fed organic feed, are never fed animal products and are not treated with antibiotics or hormones.

Organic doesn’t tell you everything about a product, however. It doesn’t tell you how big the operation was, whether organic cattle were grain finished, or much about how the animals were treated. Organic pork, poultry and egg operations are not required to allow their animals access to the outdoors. Organic cows are supposed to have “access to pasture,” but the amount of time is undefined. There is a huge ongoing battle over what types of operations meet the “access to pasture” requirement.  Some argue that “access to pasture” should be year round, others argue pasture should be provided during the growing season, while some large organic producers maintain operations that look a lot like conventional feed lots.

Meat and Poultry

The following terms are regulated by the USDA:

  • Fresh—temperature has never been below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Natural–no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed. May have been injected with salt water.
  • No hormones—it is against the law to sell poultry or pork that has been given hormones. Don’t be taken in by chicken or pork products that boast about this. The claim does mean something in the context of beef.
  • Free range—The USDA regulates this term for poultry, but not meats or eggs. Poultry may be labeled “free range” if the bird had access to the outdoors. Access to the outdoors may mean that a door to a small, fenced concrete yard was open a few hours a day.  It does not mean that the bird ever actually went outside and definitely doesn’t mean that the bird ever saw grass. [Note: there are concerns in the poultry industry that truly free range birds are at risk of contracting avian flu from migratory ducks.]
  • Grass fed—the animal consumed only forage after it was weaned and was never fed grains. Animals labeled “grass fed” must also have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
  •  No antibiotics—means what it sounds like. Antibiotics are routinely used in intensive farming operations to ward off infections. Hopefully, a producer who isn’t using antibiotics isn’t farming intensively enough to need them, but there is no guarantee of that.
  • Mechanically separated: “paste-like and batter-like…product produced by forcing bones with attached edible tissue through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue” used in processed meat products. Mechanically separated beef is considered unfit for human consumption, but mechanically separated chicken, turkey and pork are considered permissible.

The terms “cruelty-free,” “humane,” “eco-friendly,” and “wholesome” have no legal meaning.  Also, if you see the term “cage free” applied to poultry, you aren’t really learning anything—poultry in conventional farms are almost always housed in barns. Battery cages are only used for egg-laying hens, so only look for “cage-free” labels when you buy eggs.


The USDA does not regulate advertising claims regarding eggs. There is no legal standard for any of the following labels. Therefore, different producers may feel that different conditions satisfy the labels. There are, however, some voluntary guidelines and generally accepted commercial definitions.

  • Cage free—the hen that laid the eggs was not kept in a battery cage. In general, cage free eggs are housed in large poultry barns. This doesn’t tell you how crowded the barns were and doesn’t mean that the birds ever saw daylight. Nonetheless, birds in poultry barns are almost certainly better off than those confined in battery cages.
  •  Free range—this term isn’t regulated, but the USDA trade guidelines definite it the same way as for meat: the bird has “access to the outdoors” for an unspecified amount of time. In practice, there is often very little difference between cage free and “free range” eggs.
  • Fertile—The hen lived with a rooster. Probably means cage free.
  • Vegetarian—no animal byproducts in the feed. Note: if the chicken actually saw the outdoors, it is extremely likely that its “vegetarian diet” was supplemented by bugs and worms.
  • Omega-3—Generally means that the chicken’s feed was supplemented with flax, seaweed, or another omega-3 rich substance so that the yolks would contain more omega 3 fatty acids.

What now?

You can glean some useful information from labels if you know what to look for, although perhaps not as much as one would hope.  At the end of the day, no label will tell you as much as doing research on the company or farm you are buying from. If they are producing food in a responsible, eco-friendly manner, they will probably be shouting this information from the rooftops.



  1. This was a super useful post. I’m really happy you posted it, because I would never have the patience to go figure it out myself. I’m easily confused. 🙂

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