A trip to the grocery store should be simple, but if you’re shopping in hopes of walking away with organic and ethical food, you might need to do a little extra work.
When we shop, we often look at best before dates, nutrition labels, and any other packaging labels that stand out. These can give you useful insight into where the product you are about to buy comes from and how it was made. However, etiquette is only useful if you actually understand it. This is where some of us, myself included, may lack knowledge.
I am not vegan. Yes, I like to eat chicken, eggs, beef and other animal products. But do I like the idea of buying chicken from a company that pumps chickens full of steroids, deprives them of sunlight, and packs them so tightly they can barely move? Absolutely not. The same applies to all other products of animal origin. Going completely vegan isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t worry about the ethics behind our diets.
There are hundreds of different food labels and each one makes a specific claim about the food it contains. Some of these labels can be extremely misleading when it comes to claims about how an animal product got from farm to shelf.
Marie Burcham, Policy Director for Nonprofits The Cornucopia Institute, advises consumers to exercise healthy skepticism about food labels. The Cornucopia Institute studies brands within the food production industry to improve transparency, educate consumers and elevate what it considers to be “authentic and organic” food and farmers.
What does organic mean?
The term “organic” is used often (much like the salads it sometimes describes), but there are federal regulations that legally determine whether something can be labeled organic or not. In the case of United States Department of Agriculture and its meat requirements“Standards require animals to be raised in living conditions appropriate to their natural behaviors, fed organic food, and not given antibiotics or hormones.”
In the USDA’s definition of organic and what gets the department’s certified label, there’s four different organic labels a product could receive:
- 100% organic: This product is completely organic in the sense that all ingredients meet this labeling standard.
- Biological: At least 95% of the product ingredients are organic.
- Made with organic farming… : At least 70% of product ingredients are organic with some specific restrictions on ingredients that are not organic.
- Specific organic ingredients listed: The product cannot carry an organic label at all and contains less than 70% organic ingredients.
“[Organic] doesn’t just have a negative connotation of the things it doesn’t allow,” Burcham says. “It also requires certain practices that we know are positive…things that we know have scientifically proven environmental benefit.”
The USDA definition of organic agriculture leaves an unfortunate room for interpretation and for producers of animal products to bend the rules. Rather than viewing USDA regulations as the gold standard, it’s more realistic to view them as the bare minimum.
Common Food Labels Explained
Although the “organic” label is the broadest label people often see on grocery products, there are hundreds of others that also seem to make claims about the health or humanity of food. ‘a product.
For example, “grass fed” could give the impression of cows grazing in a nice open field with healthy grass growing all around. However, Burcham explains that in the case of the “grass-fed” labeling for beef, all beef in the United States is grass-fed at the start of its life. So, you could buy “grass-fed” beef that was processed in a feedlot with terrible conditions and very little grass, but it would still be labeled grass-fed.
Burcham adds that something similar could be said of the label “free range” eggs. The USDA defines free-range farming as follows: “Birds are housed in a building, room or area with unrestricted access to food and fresh water and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle; the outdoor space may or may not be fenced and/or covered with a netting-like material. You would think this means that the birds have a large open space outside to roam around and enjoy the sun.
Unfortunately, Burcham says, that could mean the birds are housed in a building with a small door that leads to a small porch where only a few hens can go out at a time. These conditions would satisfy the requirement to be labeled ‘outdoors’ as the birds could spend time outdoors, albeit to a limited extent.
The term “Natural” is also often seen on food packaging, but what does it really mean? That a food product is made “naturally” sounds positive and in terms of animal products it might seem more humane. However, if a pet food product is labeled “natural,” it actually has nothing to do with how the animal was raised. In this case, natural simply means that the meat contains no artificial ingredients, additional colorings, and has been minimally processed.
Resources to check if your products are organic and/or cruelty-free
To promote transparency and keep consumers informed, the Cornucopia Institute has developed Dashboards evaluate food producers on their ability to meet organic food standards to the highest degree. Producers are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, and those who receive the highest rating have shown that they go above and beyond the requirements of organic food labeling.
The dashboards cover a number of food categories such as eggs, beef, Poultry, dairy, cerealand even toothpaste. Use these to see if your usual brands are really organic enough. You may be disappointed to learn that brands Whole Foods, Wegman’s and Aldi’s Simply Nature only score one out of five on the beef scorecard. On the bright side, Organic Valley, which sells dairy products in Walmart, Whole Foods and other grocery stores, scored four out of five on the Dairy Scorecard.
And, if you come across a food packaging label at the store that you’re not sure about, you can check out A Greener World’s food label breakdown. A Greener World is a non-profit organization focused on promoting and creating sustainable agricultural models by working with farmers and ranchers.
“Consumers should be skeptical of labeling claims,” says Burcham. “Yes, that could mean something about this product, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s common sense.”