Defining our Food Labels

When talking about our food, we constantly hear terms like ‘organic’, ‘local’, ‘free-range’, and ‘grass-fed.’ These labels are meant to guide consumers’ food purchasing decisions by offering information on the farming methods used to grow or raise food, and the reassurance that food safety risks have been minimized. More often than not, however, I find it difficult to distinguish the plethora of different labels.

For example, a term like local can mean different things to different people. Where I might say local signifies something grown or raised in my county, someone else might say it was grown in their state, or in a collection of nearby states. Piedmont Environmental Council’s (PEC) Buy Fresh Buy Local label signifies agricultural products grown or raised in a defined county-region in Virginia. The state label, Virginia Grown, indicates the product was grown in Virginia. Virginia’s Finest is another state label that requires only the product company to be based in Virginia and have control of the recipe, but the product itself does not have to be grown or processed in Virginia. Another category of labels are ones overseen by a national governmental or non-profit certifying organization that offer information about the way farm products were grown, raised, or processed. These labels include ones such as ‘certified organic’, ‘certified naturally grown’, and ‘USDA-inspected’.

Farming Methods

The most commonly-known term is certified organic. In general, organic production restricts the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other synthetic inputs. Farms are not allowed to use genetically modified organisms, and they are expected to promote ecological balance, natural resource cycling, and to conserve biodiversity. Products must go through the USDA’s National Organic Program in order to receive this certified organic label.

We also see products that are labeled certified naturally grown. This label is issued by a non-profit organization that uses a peer-review process to certify small scale, direct-market farmers and beekeepers who use natural and beyond organic (meeting or exceeding certified organic standards) methods. Similar to certified organic criteria, farmers are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or GMO seeds.

Farmers frequently use the label low or no spray. Products with this label are grown with little or no spraying of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., but do not go through any certification process.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a technique used to control pests and reduce pesticide use. Farmers must maintain constant connection with their crops in order to know if pest infestations are getting out of hand. Prevention can involve planting pest-free rootstock or using crop rotation to deter insect infestation. If a pest population is observed to be growing rapidly, the next step is intervention. Biological control is a well known control method of IPM—for example, using ladybug beetles to control an aphid infestation—but IPM also allows for chemical sprays if the situation is sufficiently dire.

Many of our local farmers use organic or even beyond organic farming methods even if they are not certified through a program. Certifications can be an expensive and paperwork-heavy process. Still, some farmers believe that being certified gives them legitimacy, assures the customer that a third party has inspected the farm, and ultimately opens more markets for their products. Ideally, make an appointment to visit the farm and learn about their farming practices. Know your farmer, know your food.

Food Safety

The USDA-inspected label is found on any meat sold commercially. This means that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service have officially evaluated a meat product for class, grade, or other quality characteristics. It also requires that the safe handling instruction sticker be placed on the final packaged product.

For produce, a newer program called good agricultural practices, or GAPS, is beginning to grow in popularity. This is a voluntary audit that focuses on best agricultural practices to verify that fruits and vegetables are “produced, packed, handled, and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.” Farmers complete a certification checklist and farm inspection to ensure the methods they use uphold the integrity and safety of their produce.

Food Product Labels

A variety of labels are used for poultry, livestock, and eggs to explain the condition under which animals are raised. Two similar animal welfare certification programs are ‘certified humane’ and ‘animal welfare approved.’

Certified humane is a third-party certification and labeling program that requires the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter. Animals must be provided ample space, shelter, gentle handling, fresh water and a healthy diet. Crates, cages, and tie stalls are forbidden, and animals must be free to do what come naturally. Animal welfare approved (AWA) is also a third-party verification process — through which the non-profit audits and certifies only family farms who raise their animal outdoors on pasture or range according to specific handling and welfare standards. AWA has the strictest animal welfare standards of all labeling programs.

Naturally-raised is yet another term denoting how livestock is raised. It requires that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products be raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics, and may not be fed animal by-products. This label does not, however, provide guidelines on the welfare or living conditions of the animal.

Cage-free means that poultry raised for eggs or meat are not housed in cages. However, they may still be kept in large, crowded warehouses with no access to the outdoors. I’ve heard this term best described as “not saying anything about the environment they are in, but just saying something about the environment they’re not in—cages.” Free-range or free-roaming poultry is another term used for broiler chickens or laying hens. Producers must demonstrate that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside—meaning the poultry may still live in a warehouse, but there must be a door to some outside space (which the poultry may or may not decide to use).

When it comes to ruminant livestock, we commonly see the label grass-fed. Grass-fed means that 100% of the animal’s diet consists of freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or silage) during the winter months or drought conditions, and that no grain is fed throughout the animals’ lives.

Finally, we have the label pastured. Pastured implies that animals were raised outdoors on pasture. Laying hens and broiler chickens are raised on grass and bugs, cows are raised on grass, pigs are raised on woodland forage. While there is no regulatory process to ensure this claim, it has become a popular label to describe a farmer’s commitment to raising their animals with health and happiness as a top priority.

The best way to learn about the food you purchase is to talk to your farmer. Farmers are always willing to educate customers about how they raise their animals or grow their produce, so don’t be wary about asking questions. The more you know as a consumer, the better food purchasing decisions you can make. You can also view PEC’s 2013 Buy Fresh Buy Local guides which include a ‘Labels Defined’ box listing definitions to many of these food labels along with contact information for many farms throughout the region. (

Jessica Palmer is the Buy Fresh Buy Local Coordinator for the Piedmont Environmental Council. She wrote this article for a 2013 Issue of Piedmont Family Magazine.