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Commonly Used Food Labeling Terms

Terms like "cage free" and "free range" sound nice, but what do they really mean? Are the animals used to produce these products really treated more humanely? There is no standard label for any the following claims, most likely because there is no verification or standard for the terms. Nevertheless, you can use these definitions to guide your purchasing decisions.

  • Cage Free: This claim means that egg-laying hens are not housed in battery cages. Most likely, the hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses without outdoor access. They are able to engage in some natural behavior, such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are allowed. Cage-free hens may be housed so compactly that problems experienced in cage confinement may still exist.
     
    Most egg-laying hens in the U.S. live in wire "battery cages" so restrictive they can't even spread their wings (above). 
     
    Few hens, even those deemed  "cage free," enjoy living conditions that allow them to engage in natural behaviors of nesting, perching and dust bathing, like those living at the sanctuary pictured below.

     

  • Free Roaming: On egg cartons, this term may be used interchangeably with “cage free” and “free range.” Free-roaming hens are typically uncaged inside barns or warehouses. They may have some outdoor access, but it is not required. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are allowed and there is no requirement to disclose stocking densities so birds may still may be overcrowded. If stocking density is too high, some problems associated with cage confinement may exist. For poultry and meat, this claim is similar to “free range.”

    Note : The USDA has only defined the use of this claim for poultry, so there is no oversight on the use of this term on eggs and other products. To learn what the term “free roaming” means on non-poultry products, you must contact the producer directly.

  • Free Range: Contrary to popular belief, this term does not necessarily mean the animals spent their entire lives living happily on a green pasture. Egg-laying hens are typically housed in open-air barns with one or more exits to an outdoor area. Usually the available outdoor area is unattractive to the hens (offering poor foraging opportunities and no protection from predators, for example) so they elect to spend most or all of their time in the barn. For poultry and meat, the animals should have daily outdoor access, but the quality of land or duration of outdoor time are not verified. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are allowed and some problems seen in cage-confined birds may be present if stocking density is too high.


    Note
    : The USDA has only defined the use of this claim for poultry, not for eggs or any other product. To learn what this term means on non-poultry products, you must contact the producer directly.

  • Grass-Fed / 100% Grass-Fed / Pasture-Raised: Such labels can be found on meat products from producers who provide their animals outdoor access, enabling them to engage in natural behaviors. As with “free range” meat and poultry, there is no requirement to disclose stocking densities, the frequency or duration of outdoor time, or the quality of land accessible to the animals. Also, the claim doesn’t necessarily verify that the animal was raised on pasture—it could mean the animals were in a feedlot or confined in a barn and fed grass.

    For eggs, the claim most likely means hens were raised in fenced pastures with open-sided shelters. These hens have more opportunities to express natural behaviors, such as spreading their wings, perching and foraging, than cage-free, free-roaming or free range hens.

  • Hormone Free / No Hormones Added / No Hormones Administered: For meat, this claim means the animals were not injected with growth hormones or steroids, which cause the animals to grow faster than normal. This rapid, unnatural growth can lead to multiple health problems such as lameness, kidney problems and heart disease.
  • Natural / All Natural: This claim only refers to the lack of artificial flavoring or coloring, artificial or synthetic ingredients, and chemical preservatives in the final product. Products may be labeled as “natural” if the animals were fed antibiotics, hormones or animal by-products as long as no artificial ingredients were added to the final product. The claim does not address how the animal was handled or raised and has no relevance to the animals’ welfare.
  • rBGH-Free or rBST-Free: Found on dairy products, this claim means the cows were not injected with hormones to increase milk production.
  • USDA Organic (also known the National Organic Program): Meat, egg, and dairy products with the “USDA Organic” label guarantee that producers do not use antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering or irradiation. The regulations also address feed, health care and living conditions of the animals, but do not address handling and management, minimum space allowances, environmental factors or transport.
     

    Meat products other than poultry should come from animals who were raised outdoors, but no regulations define the frequency or duration of outdoor time. Additionally, a temporary confinement exemption allows animals to be confined due to bad weather, health concerns, or even concerns about soil or water quality. Some producers have taken advantage of this exemption by keeping animals confined with little outdoor access while still being allowed to feature the organic label. Tail-docking and sow-crating are allowed practices.

    The USDA does not view chickens in the same way as other animals, so organic layer hens and broiler chickens are permitted to be raised in constant confinement, most likely raised in open-air barns or warehouses. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are allowed for layer hens. Currently, no programs exist to certify seafood as organic.

    Also, the following are commonly-seen accredited USDA organic certifiers:

    - Certified Organics, Inc.
    - Quality Assurance International (QAI) -- Certified Organic

    These independent agencies do not have their own standards; all products they certify comply with the USDA Organic standards. Products that are certified by these companies may display just the USDA Organic logo or the USDA logo and the certifier’s logo.