Your Grocery List

In today’s world, going to the grocery store is a challenge. With so many options, new foods, and trends to eat “healthy” or “organic,” consumers are so bogged down with phrases they don’t understand that they don’t know what food to buy. There are many sites out there that attempt to explain what organic really is, but what about the rest? As a project for this intern, I have developed a list of critical terms that consumers need to know when purchasing foods.

Many people believe that organic, cage-free, free-range, or certified humane are all United States Department of Agriculture issued terms. However that is one of the many myths out there about processed food and agriculture. Below I am going to give several key terms that are frequently used on food and explain what they really mean.

·      “Antibiotic-free” A term NOT approved by the USDA. Under the USDA regulations, meat and poultry products can be considered as “no antibiotics added” if documentation is provided showing that the animals were raised without antibiotics. However, NO labeling regulations are established. Similar terms that are allowed according to the USDA are “no antibiotics ever,” “no added antibiotics,” and “raised without the use of antibiotics.”

·      “Cage-free” – According to the USDA regulations, “cage-free” means that laying hens live uncaged, usually within a barn, warehouse, building, or other enclosed area. The hens must have unlimited access to food and water and the ability to roam freely within their enclosed area during their egg-production cycle. “Cage-free” does NOT necessarily mean the hens have access to the outdoors. A Cage-free” hens can engage in natural behaviors, such as nesting and spreading their wings. However, practices such as beak cutting are allowed. Poultry raised for meat are rarely caged.

·      “Certified humane”A term NOT approved or regulated by the USDA. “Certified humane” is a voluntary certification and labeling program administered by the Human Farm Animal Care to ensure humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter. Certified producers must meet species standards for such things as space, shelter, handling, fresh water, and a diet free of added hormones and antibiotics. Cages, crates, and tie stalls are prohibited and animals must be able to engage in natural behaviors. It is critical to remember that this term is voluntary is in no way affiliated with the USDA, so when purchasing “certified-humane, remember that it is not government regulated.

·      “Chemical-free”Under the USDA regulations, this term is not allowed on meat or poultry labels, so if you see it be cautious about its meaning. Similarly federal regulations do not allow the terms “residue-free,” residue tested,” “naturally raised,” “naturally grown,” or “drug-free.”

·      “Free Range or Free Roaming” – According to the USDA, this term ONLY applies to poultry raised for meat. The USDA free-range designation means that poultry have been allowed some access to the outdoors. However, there are no USDA requirements on how much time the poultry spend outdoors or the quality or size of the outdoor area. There are no standards regarding the use of the term “free range” for egg-producing hens, although you might see the term on egg cartons. “Free range” hens for egg production typically are uncaged in barns or warehouses with some outdoor access. “Free-range” hens can engage in some natural behaviors. There are no USDA restrictions on what they’re fed, and beak cutting and forced moulting is allowed. In addition, the USDA doesn’t define free range in terms of beef, pork, or other nonpoultry animals. So if you see this term on these products, keep in mind that is has NO standard meaning.

·      Grain fed” – A term that is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture only as far as what products actually count as grain for feed. Under these regulations, a grain-fed diet for livestock defines these as grains: barley, canola, corn, flaxseed, mixed grain, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, triticale, and wheat, and nay other food grains, feed grains, and oilseeds for which standards are established. Other feed that may be considered acceptable under grain-fed diet guidelines are rice, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, and distiller’s grain.

·      Grass fed” – Another term that is regulated by the USDA. Under the regulations, grass-fed means that grass and forage are the feed source for ruminant animals (cattle) for the duration of their life after weaning. Animals cannot be fed or grain byproducts. They must have a continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, silage, crop residue without grain, cereal grain crops in the pregrain stage and other roughage sources are acceptable feed.


·      Hormone-free” – Under the USDA regulations, this term is not allowed on meat products. Beef may be labeled as “no hormones administered” if producers document that the animals were raised without hormones. An important fact to realize is that federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising poultry, hogs, veal calves, or exotic animals. There, claims of “no hormones added” can not be used on the labels for these products unless the label also states, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

·      Natural” – Under the USDA regulations, this term may be used on labeling for meat and poultry products if the product does not contain any artificial flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and it the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. The product label must explain what is meant by natural, such as whether a food contains no added colorings. This term has no relevance to animals feeding or welfare.

·      Pasture raised” – This is a term that is regulated as part of the National Organic Program of the USDA and can sometimes be referred to as “access to pasture.” Manufacturers who use this label must meet certain requirements, such as providing year-round access to the outdoors for all ruminant animals, providing them with pasture throughout the grazing season in their area and ensuring that the animals get at least 30% of their dry-feed intake from pasture grazing over the course of grazing.


·      Vegetarian fed” – This term is not regulated by the USDA. It is generally meant to suggest that an animal is fed a healthier diet and it is raised without being fed animal byproducts or dairy products. According to the USDA, manufacturers that use this term on package labels must be able to provide evidence to support the claim.


I got this information from a great source! The website is and anyone interested in learning more about nutrition labeling should check it out. They not only provide this information but they give links to other food labeling and health claims.

Another file I found online from the USDA gives us some insight into what “Organic” and some of the labeling with organic terms mean.

  • “100% Organic”:

o   Must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

o   The label must show and ingredient statement when the product consists of more than one ingredient.

  •  “ Organic”:

o   Must contain 95% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

o   Must not contain added sulfites.

o   May contain up to 5% nonorganically produced agriculture ingredients which are commercially available in organic for form.

o   The label must show an ingredient statement. It also must list the organic ingredients as “organic” when other organic labeling is shown.

  • “Made with Organic”:

o   Must contain 70% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

o   Must not contain added sulfites.

o   May contain up to 30% nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients

o   The label must show an ingredient statement and list the organic ingredients as “organic” when other organic labeling is shown.

o   The label may not show the USDA Organic seal.

  • “Some Organic Ingredients”:

o   May contain less than 70% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt.

o   May contain over 30% nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients.

o   The label must show an ingredient statement when the word organic is used. It may no show any other reference to organic contents, the USDA organic seal, or the certifying agent seal.

There are always other issues about Organic being safer or more nutritious, however that is an entire other topic that we can address another time. Right now, I just want to encourage everyone out there to read up on the food labeling misconceptions because they may not be what you have always thought! So, the next time you head out to the grocery store, take along what all these food labeling terms mean so you can decode your way through the supermarket aisles.   —-JP