Your food labels are lying—Here's how to tell
We have some bad news...
Your food labels are lying to you.
We get the frustration of changing your food-buying habits because of an enlightening podcast or article you came across, only to find information to the contrary a few months later, leaving you questioning everything.
The truth is that large companies spend money to stay on top of the latest consumer trends and, because many of these claims are unregulated, buzzwords on food packaging can't always be taken at face value.
Read on to see our ratings of common marketing terms, why we don't think "greenwashing" or "localwashing" is *always* a bad thing, and our #1 tip for avoiding being deceived by your food!
Common claims you might see on your meat (A to Z):
All natural— Sister-farmer-score (SFS): 2/10
Why? While this sounds wholesome (who wants anything synthetic in their food?), this is usually a baseless claim, and is sometimes used on products with synthetic ingredients. This means nothing about how the animal was raised, what it was fed, or medications it was given. If you see a farmer you trust using this, it's probably well-intentioned, but on food packaging in the grocery store don't give it any credit.
Antibiotic-free— SFS: 6/10
Why? "No antibiotics used/administered" are USDA regulated terms, but there aren't strict definitions for variations on those statements. All food animals are subject to a withdrawal period for antibiotics before slaughter (although there isn't anyone checking up on this), so technically should be free of antibiotic residues. This label could mean a few different things. Were antibiotics used, but not to promote growth? Were antibiotics only used in emergency situations? Or were they actually not used at all?
Cage-free— SFS: 4.5/10
Why? We considered giving this one a lower score, but it's *technically* not misleading, and is actually regulated by the USDA. Here's why we didn't give it a higher score: you'll see this term on egg cartons with images of hens out on grassy pastures, soaking up the sun, and nothing could be further from the truth. Cage-free hens are still raised in giant confinement barns, just without the cages—which can actually be worse, since it subjects them to crowding, competition, and picking on each other. That's it. No outside access, no promise of living conditions, or anything else.
Farm fresh—SFS: 0.5/10
Why? Doesn't all food come from a farm? 100% meaningless.
Why? This one depends on the context. The only USDA regulation for this term applies to meat poultry, and specifies that they have some sort of outside access. This *could* be an outdoor run, but it also could be a pop-hole that doesn't allow them full-body access to the outdoors. In the context of a local farm, this term most likely means that the animals had outdoor space, but you'll have to do some more digging to determine this. In the grocery store, look for third-party certifiers such as Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved. Even better: look for a "pasture-raised" label. Here's another post with more details on free-range vs. pasture-raised.
Why? This might mean that the animal was exclusively grass-fed, or it might not. Technically most beef cattle are "grass-fed" at some point in their lives, so this term could be used deceptively. Look for '100% grass-fed' or 'grass-fed and finished.
Why? This does hold some weight since it's USDA-regulated. There are two things to bear in mind with this: 1- 'Hormone-free' is technically inaccurate since all meat will have hormones in it from the animal. 2- Growth hormone supplementation is only allowed in beef cattle, so it's an empty claim if you see this on pork or poultry labels. Make sure your beef comes from a trusted source that doesn't give supplemental hormones.
Humane/Humanely-raised—SFS: either 1/10 or 10/10
Why? Again, this one depends! If it's on a label in a grocery store, this doesn't mean anything unless you're familiar with the company. If the meat isn't from a trusted company or farm, your best bet is to look for a third party certifier to back this claim.
Why? This is pretty vague. Does it mean "local" to your region of the country? Or does it mean local to your state?
Why? This is also unregulated, unless it's verified by the Non GMO project. We're inclined to think that *most* of the time this claim is used it's true, but it still doesn't mean anything about the way the animals were raised!
Organic/Certified organic—SFS: 9/10
Why? This claim is regulated, so if you see this it's safe to say that what you're buying is organic! However, we didn't give it a perfect score because 'organic' doesn't mean much in terms of living conditions or outside access for animals, unless it's dairy cows. An organic label does assure you that your meat was fed certified organic feed, raised without added hormones, and wasn't given antibiotics, and is free of anything genetically modified.
Outdoor Access—SFS: 0/10
Why? Outdoor access is basically saying the animals were raised in confinement and had access to a pen or run.
Vegetarian diet/fed—SFS: 0/10
Why? Why would you want to eat chicken or pork whose feed had animal-based ingredients? Poultry and hogs are both omnivores by nature, so if they were pasture-raised wouldn't be vegetarians. A vegetarian diet is another way of saying the animals were raised in confinement.
Our take on this:
While it makes being a responsible shopper more difficult, we don't think its overall a bad thing that claims like these have gone mainstream. Why not? Because it signals a shift in buying patterns. Large food corporations wouldn't paint their products as wholesome, sustainable, and humane if they didn't think that was what consumers cared about. More people caring about quality products equals a win in our book!
Of course, since it can be hard to know which marketing claims to trust, we recommend researching brands in the grocery store you choose to support, and finding a local farmer to support who will answer your questions about their practices.
See our blog post "Are Cured Meats Killing Us? Fact vs. Myth" for our perspective on more food-related marketing claims!
Therese Schroeder-Sheker —
Elise’s blog post on meat labeling practices in the general meat industry is mind-bogglingly helpful especially for those of us living outside of Michigan who cannot yet order meats from TWF. Thank you Elise! You are helping readers translate generalized advertising jargon from accurate specifics. Five star shout out!
Selina Babcock —
Thanks for the blog very informative.
Selina Babcock —
Thanks for the blog very informative.