It can be hard to understand all of the similar and complicated food labels that allude to how something was grown or raised. It is helpful to know what different labels and certifications mean to help you make informed choices about how your food made it onto your plate. Below is a collection of common definitions of terms used to describe how food is grown and processed. If there is a term that you’d like to know more about that you don’t see included, please let us know!
The USDA has three regulated terms that apply to organic certification.
- 100% organic: Single-ingredient foods like fruit and veggies, or products made from ingredients that are all 100 percent organic.
- Organic: Any product that’s at least 95 percent organic.
- Made with organic ingredient(s): Any product containing at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
To be certified organic by the USDA:
- -For plant foods, the land the crop is grown on must have been free of any prohibited substances for at least three years.
- -The farm can’t use any genetically modified products, sewage sludge, or irradiation.
- -In most cases, farmers must use organic seeds.
- -Farmers can only use pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides that are naturally occurring, you can see a list of allowed substances, methods, and ingredients here.
- -Farmers must keep detailed records, have an on-site inspection by an official certifying agent, and pay all fees associated with certification.
- -For livestock, the animals must be fed 100 percent organic feed and not be given antibiotics or hormones. And their living conditions have to “accommodate natural behaviors”.
“Grass (Forage) Fed” only applies to ruminant animals (like cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo, and deer.) It does not apply to non-ruminant animals, like pigs, turkeys, chickens, or rabbits because they are omnivores. Grass-fed means that grass and forage are the food source for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. The USDA’s grass-fed label refers strictly to the animal’s diet and has nothing to do with other living conditions, like space requirements, or if it has received hormones or antibiotics. Many beef cows are grass-fed and grain-finished. Meaning they spent a majority of their life on a diet of hay and other forage and then ate grain during the last few months of its life to impact the weight and flavor of the cow’s meat.
Put simply, a pasture-raised animal must have had access to the outdoors for a minimum of 120 days per year. A pasture-raised animal does not have to be solely grass-fed. For example, some pasture-raised animals are fed grain in the winter. There is no standard definition of pasture-raised. USDA regulations require farms to submit paperwork defining what pasture-raised means to them.
Free-Range means that an animal has continuous, free access to the outdoors for over 51% of its life. The label “Free Range” can be used on any meat or poultry animal. Free Range labeling is obtained through the USDA with a written description of housing conditions. There is no minimum space requirement for the animals and does not specify that the outdoor space has to be grass for forage.
Animal Welfare Approved
Animal Welfare Approved is a certification provided by A Greener World (AGW). They describe their certification as “The basic premise of all our standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being and that the way we raise our animals, the nutritional quality of the food they produce, and the impact of the farming system on the environment are all intrinsically linked.”
Certified Animal Welfare Approved:
- -Requires animals to be raised on pasture or range
- -Prohibits dual production (only raising some animals under Animal Welfare Approved conditions)
- Awards approval only to independent farmers
This certification requires farms to follow the non-profit Certified Humane’s Animal Care Guidelines from birth to slaughter. All animals are never kept in cages, crates, or tie stalls. Animals must be free to do what comes naturally. For example, chickens must be able to flap their wings and dust bathe, and pigs must have space to move around and root. Calves must not be weaned before five weeks of age. Animals must be fed a diet of quality feed, without antibiotics or growth hormones. A full list of guidelines for specific types of animals is available here.
“Non-GMO” or “GMO-Free”
Non-GMO is a certification provided and enforced by the Non-GMO project. It means the ingredients used are not from organisms that have had their genetic material manipulated or altered in a lab. The term is not regulated by the government, but by a non-profit organization called “The Non-GMO Project.
Starting January 2022, any product that contains a bioengineered food- or food that cannot be made using lab techniques and cannot be found in nature or created through traditional breeding- must be labeled as “bioengineered food.” To become Non-GMO verified, a food company must work with a third-party Technical Administrator for product verification
New York Grown and Certified
This relatively new program aims to help consumers identify products grown in New York State. For certification, food producers must:
- -Grow all certified products in New York State
- -Participate in a food safety or safe food handling program
- -Complete a tier two or higher level of the New York State Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) program
- -Special requirements for dairy:
- -Dairy processors must certify that a majority of their milk is (or milk suppliers are) from New York State farms.
- -Dairy processing plants must be in compliance with the required Plant Processor Supervisor (PPS) training
- -A majority of dairy processor’s milk must be from producers that have completed a tier two or higher level of the New York State AEM program.
Unregulated Claims in Food Marketing
There is no legal definition of the term “natural”. The USDA defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color” that “is only minimally processed,” meaning it’s “processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” It does not refer to what an animal ate, how they were treated, or if they received antibiotics during their lifetime. The FDA has no guidelines for use of the term “natural” and only lightly enforces the term “all-natural,” “Naturally raised” is also unregulated.
Cage-free means that egg-laying chickens do not live in cages, but rather have space to move around. Cage-free does not mean chickens have access to the outdoors or a minimum space requirement. This label can be used to market egg products but is not regulated or enforced.
Regenerative International defines “Regenerative Agriculture” as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. It is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter.” A farm can be Certified Organic by the USDA, and not consider their practices regenerative.
The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill defines “Local Food” as a food product that travels less than 400 miles from the origin of the product, or is in the State in which it is produced.
In New York State, a 2019-2020 bill then further defined food that is marketed as “local” as a product that has been “grown, raised, or harvested, or produced in New York or it must show descriptive language about the region or distance from New York where the product originated from.”
Visiting a farm or talking with folks at your local farmers’ market can help you learn more about each farm’s production practices. Small farms may not be officially certified in one area, but follow practices that align with your values. By getting to know your grower, you can feel good about where you’re sourcing your food.