Deciphering Food Labels: What Do Those Humane Certifications Really Mean?

Deciphering Food Labels: What Do Those Humane Certifications Really Mean?
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October 22, 2014

Many consumers use labels to make purchasing decisions at the grocery store, but these labels can often be misleading, confusing or downright useless.

Take, for example, what happened in Bethesda, MD earlier this month. The Washington Post reported that on a recent trip to a Giant Supermarket Louis Offen was surprised to see that the quality labels on the meat were replaced with labels that just said 'USDA graded'.

The labels indicating whether the cut was Prime, Choice or Select were gone. While not inaccurate, as the vast majority of meat produced in the U.S. is graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the label offers consumers very little information as to what they are purchasing. The company was later required to continue using the original grading labels.

For consumers looking for beef that is either organic or humanely raised and slaughtered, label confusion can be equally overwhelming.

Here, we'll try to shed some light on some of those labels.

Natural/All Natural: Natural is considered by consumer groups to be the most useless and misleading label on the market and there is a push to stop food manufacturers from using it. In the case of meat products, the USDA defines natural as being minimally processed and containing no preservatives or artificial ingredients. According to this definition all fresh meat is natural regardless of how it was raised or how it was processed. Almost 60 percent of consumers look for this label while they're shopping, but without a clear defintion and enforcement, it's meaningless.

USDA Organic: Beef with this government-backed certification means that cows were fed 100 percent organic feed and were not given hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. Farmers are required to keep diligent records in order to keep this certification. But, it doesn't mean that the animals were processed humanely and the certification doesn't completely require access to pasture or a prohibition on cages or crates.

Certified Humane: According to Consumer Reports, this certification is known for its strict protocols and auditing. It defines space requirements, uses drugs prudently and bans animal byproducts in feed. The certification does allow feedlots and doesn't guarantee continuous access to open space.

Animal Welfare Approved: AWA certification is only given to family farms that adhere to very strict welfare standards that begin with breeding and end with slaughter. There isn't, however, a complete ban on pesticide use or genetically modified feed use. This certification is considered the highest in the industry.

Free Range: Free range animals have access to open space, but that's as far as this label goes. There is no guarantee of humane treatment, feed without animal byproducts or pesticides, and prudent drug use.

Grass Fed: A good majority of cattle are graze on pasture the first six to 12 months of their life, regardless of how they are later handled. The claim alone doesn't mean that cows were treated humanely and could have been given preventative antibiotics or hormones to help them grow larger and faster. There is a USDA definition of grass-fed, but producers aren't required to follow those guidelines to make the claim. Look for certification from the American Grassfed Association for more guarantees of humane treatment. To truly get the nutritional benefits of grass fed beef, consumers should look for grass finished beef, which means the cows dined on grass their entire lives.

This infographic from Take Part and Consumer Reports provides a great breakdown as to what each label allows and what it prohibits.

Labels can't replace good, old-fashioned research. Ask the butcher in your local grocery store about the sourcing and the standards of the meat you're purchasing. Local producers that follow strict humane standards are often willing to answer questions about their practices and may even invite you on the farm for a visit. Steer clear of producers that avoid answer your questions or outright refuse. Their humane claims may not hold water.