Friday, April 22, 2011

Food Labelling - What does it all mean?

I was talking with a co-worker about organic food sources yesterday. She was told to always chose organic when it comes to dairy, meat and poultry. What she didn't realize is that organic doesn't guarantee a humanely raised, healthier animal. Organic does not equal free-range. Free-range does not equal organic. Free-range does not equal pasture raised. Food labelling terms are so confusing and there is little in the way of regulation to standardize the meanings. What's a conscious consumer to do?

Poultry & Eggs:

When it comes to poultry and eggs, we often see terms like "cage free", "free range" and "free run". What does it all mean?

"Cage Free" simply means the chickens were raised outside of a cage. This doesn't mean it was raised in a humane environment, or that it had access to the outdoors. Cage free is the most meaningless term of all of them. As well, a Globe & Mail article from 2009 stated that uncaged chickens "exposed to higher levels of bacteria, parasites and viruses that put them at greater risk for disease and infection".

"Free Run" is basically the same as Cage Free. The birds are kept loose in large barns, with no access to the outdoors.

"Free Range" implies to most consumers, that the animal is raised "free on the range", but that isn't always the case. In the United States, the USDA decrees that poultry certified as "free range" must have access to the outdoors but it doesn't necessarily mean the animal actually goes outdoors (Source). Free-range chicken eggs have no legal definition in the United States. In Canada, the term "free range" is not legally defined and could mean anything.

A new term has popped up in recent years, Pastured Poultry. Pastured poultry is raised on pasture and eats a natural diet of grass and bugs (chickens are not vegetarians!).

Beef & Other Meat

"Free Range" - When it comes to beef and other meat products, there is even less regulation. The USDA has no specific definition for "free-range" beef, pork, and other non-poultry products (Source). Generally when it comes to ranching, free range implies that livestock is allowed to roam around without being fenced. It doesn't guarantee the animals were raised entirely outdoors, or that they were raised on a diet of grass and hay (you know, the stuff cows are supposed to eat!).

"Pasture Raised" and "Grass Fed" generally mean the same thing. The livestock is raised on pasture, eating a natural diet of grass or hay (in the winter months). Some farmers raise their animals on pasture but then "finish" them on grains (to fatten them up before slaughter). It is believed that grass fed livestock is healthier than conventionally raised (factory farmed) animals because they have more nutrients and less fat. It is also believed that pasture raised animals contribute to the environment by building up the top soil, since their manure is spread over a large area. This provides a source of natural, organic fertilizer (Source). As with Pastured Poultry, pasture raised livestock may not be certified organic.


This should be obvious, but there is no such thing as organic fish! I only say this because I read another blog where a woman was gushing about the benefits of eating organic salmon. Just think about it for a moment and ask yourself, how!?! When it comes to fish, you want to look for "Wild Caught" or "Wild". With shellfish, farmed (rope grown) is okay because the practice is much different than with farmed fish. You also want to purchase and consume sustainable seafood and limit your consumption of seafood high in mercury. If you are in the US, the Monteray Bay Aquarium has a great chart (and App!) here. If you are in Canada, check this PDF chart from SeaChoice. SeaChoice also has an App that is available from the App Store.


When it comes to poultry and other meats, the term "organic" is the only term strictly regulated in both the United States and Canada. For something to be labelled organic or partially organic, it must meet specific criteria and be subject to inspection. When it comes to poultry products, organic means that the animal has been fed organic, non-genetically modified food (free of pesticides and herbicides) and has not been given any hormones or antibiotics. Organic does not guarantee the animal has been raised outdoors and organic doesn't always mean healthier or better.

Photo: Nanaimo Downtown Farmers Market

Bottom Line:

When it comes down to it, it's important to "know thy farmer". Know where your meat and poultry products are coming from rather than just shopping based on a label. Ask questions! Remember, you have a right to know where your food is coming from and how it was grown. I get my beef products at the farmer's market, direct from a farmer and his wife. When I can't make it to the weekly market, I go to a farm shop in a neighbouring city. I did research and found their animals are raised in a humane and sustainable way. Neither of these suppliers are certified organic, but that's okay with me. My food beliefs put sustainable, local and humanely raised above organic. It's up to your to figure out which is more important to you.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday.

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