Food labels and what they mean


Consumer research conducted by Colorado State University (CSU) revealed that many consumers make food purchasing decisions based on moral or social ideals, such as paying more for a “local” apple to support the local economy or to reduce our carbon footprint.
As food consumers, we are regularly faced with choosing between brands and, while price is important, we also look at labels to help us decide. Interestingly though, the survey conducted by CSU found that while many people will pay more for “free range” eggs, or “naturally grown” chicken, when asked to define these terms, most consumers didn’t get it right. If it’s important to you to know where your food comes from and how it was raised, understanding the meanings of some common labels will help you evaluate label claims.
Organic is a USDA certified label which means that the food is grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, sewage sludge nor irradiation. Pesticides derived from natural sources (e.g., biological pesticides) may be used. It’s worth noting that organic farmers cannot use genetically engineered seeds, so if you are worried about eating genetically modified foods, just purchase organic products. Organic meats and dairy products are hormone-free and antibiotic-free. Livestock are fed organically raised feed and have access to the outdoors. Organic farmers often use manure as a nutrient source and cultivation for weed control. The manure does not have to be from organically raised animals. Growing and raising products organically usually costs more because it can be more labor intensive and organic seeds, feed and fertilizers often cost more. Furthermore, the certification and yearly approval process requires intensive record keeping, time and money.
The naturally raised USDA certified label can be used on meat and meat products. All products labeled with a naturally raised marketing claim must incorporate information explicitly stating that animals have been raised in a manner that meets the following conditions: 1) no growth hormones were administered to the animals; 2) no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered to the animal; and 3) no animal by-products were fed to the animals. Farm fresh is not a certified label and it really has no substance.
Grass-fed cattle eat grass for the first six to 12 months of their lives and then most are shipped to a feedlot to “finish” or fatten on grain. The USDA grass-fed label requires that cattle be fed only mother’s milk and forage (grass and other greens) throughout their lives. Forage can be in the form of hay, but cattle must have access to pasture during the growing season. This could mean that from October to March (outside the growing season), cattle are confined and fed hay. This label has no standards regarding the use of antibiotics or hormones. For small herds (less than 50 cattle or less than 100 ewes), there is a label called Grass Fed Small and Very Small (SVS) Producer Program. For more information on this program, go to
Free-range: This USDA label means that chickens are raised in a manner where they have unlimited access to the outdoors during their production cycle to get sunlight, fresh air and freedom of movement. However, the amount of time and the size of the outdoor space are ambiguous. Cage-free chickens are able to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area. Although the number of chickens per area is not regulated, on average there is one chicken per square foot of space. Cage-free living allows chickens to spread their wings and roost at night, but if you’ve ever raised chickens, you might guess that too many chickens in a confined space can lead to injury and possible death from pecking.
Humane: While this label is not regulated by USDA, there are multiple labeling programs that offer this certification and each has its own requirements for practices such as handling, marking, indoor space requirements, animal health, transportation and slaughter. Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, American Humane Certified and Validus Certified are popular programs that offer this label. Visit their websites to learn about specific standards.
No added hormones and raised without hormones: USDA regulations have never permitted the use of hormones or steroids in poultry, pork and goats, so for these products, the label isn’t important. However, hormones are commonly used in dairy and cattle production. For example, hormones such as rBGH or rBST are used in dairy production to increase cows’ milk production. Most beef cattle today are given estrogen (estradial) and/or other combinations of hormones to promote growth and fatten them up. Use of the “no added hormones” label for beef and dairy products is administered by the USDA.
No antibiotics: While antibiotics are rarely used on hens for egg production, antibiotics are commonly administered to livestock in diary, poultry and meat production. Antibiotics are used to reduce disease and sickness in a herd. The USDA label “no antibiotics” can be used on poultry and meat products. For antibiotic-free dairy products, look for the organic label.
Upcoming events
Fermentation classes: Aug. 28 (vegetables), Sept. 4 (bread) and Sept. 11 (dairy). All classes are from 1 to 3 p.m. The cost is $25 per class or $60 for all three. The cost includes materials, instructor and a jar of food to go home in each class. Space is limited, sign up today, 264-5931.
Resilient Archuleta: Sept. 4, 6 p.m. at the Extension office. Watershed Enhancement Partnership efforts.
CPR and first aid classes
CPR and first aid certification classes are offered monthly by the CSU Extension office on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m. Anyone needing to receive or renew certification can register by calling the Extension office at 264-5931.
We will also attempt to schedule classes on additional dates with five or more registrations. Cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for CPR, first aid or recertification. The type of first aid information provided will vary by the needs of the audience.
Archuleta County Weed and Pest is your local resource for managing noxious weed populations and controlling other pests.