Decoding your food: What labels mean

Think you know what your food labels mean? There are a few things you should know.

There's an array of labels on our food that can leave consumers scratching their heads.

Some of the labels found on our food are meaningless -- they don't require any inspection by the USDA, although you are led to believe that they've been inspected.

Some of them don't have specific guidelines or rules for what the labels mean and some mean much more than the simple word or two printed on the label.

NOTE: Labels hold different requirements, despite bearing the same label, for different meats and produce.


This label is highly meaningful and verified. There are three tiers to organic labeling: 100 percent organic, organic and made with organic ingredients.

According to the USDA, organic foods must meet these requirements:

Organic crops: The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.
Organic livestock: The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100 percent organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.
Organic multi-ingredient foods: The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95 percent or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.
There are NO organic regulations for seafood (some exceptions in California). Some fish may be labeled and sold as "organic" but are probably treated with antibiotics.
Organic foods are GMO-free. 
GMO-free or Non GMO Project Verified


A genetically modified organism (GMOs) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered. 

By definition, modification may include the mutation, deletion or insertion of genes from another species to achieve characteristics that may be more desirable.

GMOs are used in almost everything, especially in processed food, that doesn't say "GMO-free" or "Organic."

Anything organic is GMO free, meaning that it is naturally grown, without being modified. This is inspected.

How to tell if produce has GMOs

Look on an individual piece of produce. There should be a sticker, with a barcode.

If it has a four-digit code that means the product was "conventionally grown."

If it has a five-digit code that begins with the No. 9, that means it was organically grown.

If it has a five-digit code that begins with the No. 8, that means it has GMOs. Stay away from these!


This label leads you to believe that the meat you are buying was raised naturally. But there is no inspection required for this by the USDA.

"Natural" does not tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed or if antibiotics or hormones were ever used.


This term is often found on meats, eggs and dairy products, but the USDA only regulates use of the term as applied to poultry like chickens and turkeys.

That means all beef, lamb and pork products labeled as free-range aren’t actually regulated by the USDA.

The USDA's requirement for this label is that "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."

But, there is no information or requirements for how long the poultry has access to an outside area or for the quality of land accessible to the animals.

There are no standards for the synonymous term "free-roaming" in egg production.


This term applies to mainly to egg products. “Cage free” means hens laying eggs have never been confined in a cage, but do not generally have access to the outdoors.

This term is inspected by the USDA-FSIS which pre-approved labeling claims for egg production. The USDA shares responsibility for the regulation of egg production, along with the Food and Drug Administration, says OneGreenPlanet.

Farm Sanctuary  say that this claim is significant because 98 percent of eggs in the U.S. come from hens confined in small cages and that "cage-free" has "significant implications for animal welfare."

The Humane Society  says it doesn't really matter. "This label on poultry products has virtually no relevance to animal welfare. However, the label is helpful when found on egg cartons, as most egg-laying hens are kept in severely restrictive cages."

Beak cutting is permitted in this process.

Grass Fed

Take heed.

The USDA-FSIS regulates this claim. It is not verified by requirement, but instead is a voluntary option for farmers.

Only products with the “USDA Process Verified" shield, along with the claim, “U.S. Grass-fed,” have been verified by the USDA.

"Grass fed " is a feeding regimen for livestock raised on grass or range pasture throughout their life, with limited supplemental grain feed.

The standard requires that animals have continuous access to pasture, but only during the growing season. During the off-season, animals may be kept indoors and fed harvested

grass or forage. The label does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were administered.

Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society don't find this to benefit animal welfare.

Farm Sanctuary states: Although consumers are likely to associate the term ‘grass fed’ with the concept of free roaming or pasture raised livestock, under the current definition, ‘grass fed’ means considerably less in terms of animal welfare. This definition would allow cattle to be regularly confined in a feedlot or barn as long as they were fed grass or other forage.

Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free and No Hormones Added

These labels mean different things. On dairy products mean the cows were not dosed with rBGH or rBST, genetically engineered hormones that increase milk production.

According to Eco-Labels by Consumer Reports , there is no government or official definition for this term except on certain meat and poultry products as defined by the US Department of Agriculture.

Use of the term “hormone free” is considered “unapprovable” by USDA on any meat products.

Meat and poultry products carrying the “no hormones administered” claim that the animal must not have received any added hormones during the course of its lifetime.

However, the USDA prohibits the use of hormones on poultry and pigs.

Certified Humane

This label is highly meaningful and verified.

The "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" is designed to certify that animals raised for dairy, lamb, poultry and beef products are treated in a humane manner. Growth hormones and antibiotics are prohibited. 

The USDA, Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), Livestock and Seed Program verifies and inspects the process, along with Humane Farm Animal Care Certification Program

Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards, a higher standard for slaughtering farm animals than required by the Federal Humane Slaughter Act.

Animal Welfare Approved

The "Animal Welfare Approved " (AWA) label is designed to ensure that cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, geese, goats, bison and rabbits raised for meat, dairy or egg products are allowed to live natural lives that include physical and psychological well-being.

This is verified by third party auditors who have expertise in animal welfare.



For a full listing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat and poultry, click here . For the USDA Food Labeling fact sheet, click here.

For a searchable label database from Consumer Reports, click here .

Buyers Guide by Greener Choices, click here .

For a full list of food label descriptions from the Humane Society, click here .

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