Let’s be clear from the start: Grocery store labels are confusing.

What does it mean, for example, when a product is labeled organic or natural or cage free? The claims are endless and often meaningless. For instance there are no established standards for claiming a food product is “natural,” “pesticide-free” or “vegetarian-fed.” There are, of course, resources that can help us decipher this alphabet soup of labels. These include websites from both governmental and non-governmental agencies.

Let’s start with the label “organic,” which is actually regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). Established in 2002, this program implemented the first federal standards to define “organic.” Food producers must be certified by the National Organic Program before using a label of “organic” on any food, feed or fiber product.

The range of components regulated by these standards includes the quality of the soil, the use of pest and weed control, the use of antibiotics and the humane treatment of livestock. (More on this last category later.) Additionally, certified organic products cannot contain any genetically modified organisms. For a picture of the full scope of the NOP program, specific details and additional resources, visit the USDA National Organic Program web pages.

Oh, if that this was all we needed to simplify our decision making in the grocery. Because, guess what? Under the umbrella term of “organic,” there are several different standards that can be used.

Let’s see how this translates to food products by taking a stroll down a supermarket aisle. Let’s start with one of the most basic commodities — bread. Breads on the shelves may carry a USDA organic seal, but they are not all the same. One loaf of bread is labeled: “100% organic.” This is a USDA regulated label that can only be used if all ingredients in the bread are USDA certified organic ingredients (with the exceptions of water and salt). A second loaf of bread is labeled simply “organic." This too is a regulated label but it requires only 95 percent of the ingredients to be certified by the USDA as being organically produced. A third loaf of bread states, “Made with organic (name ingredients).” This is also a regulated label, but it only requires that 70 percent of the ingredients be certified organic.

A final loaf of labeled bread says it is “natural.” This label is neither defined nor regulated and thus there is no guarantee that this item contains any organic ingredients. Conversely, it could be 100 percent organic but not certified by USDA and therefore, unable to promote its contents as organic. To read more in depth about these distinctions, visit the USDA pages titled, “Organic 101: Understanding the ‘Made with Organic’ Label.”

The labeling puzzle only becomes more confusing as you move from the bread aisle to the egg aisle. A glance at the number of labels on egg cartons is dizzying: “Vegetarian-fed,” “Natural,” “Farm Fresh,” “Cage-free” and “Free-range,” just to name a few. It is important to know that when it comes to eggs the USDA National Organic Program only regulates the term “certified organic.”

An egg carton that carries a “certified organic” label means the laying hens were fed organic feed free from pesticides and antibiotics. Additionally, they have to be “cage-free,“ a government standard that does not necessarily mean that the hens have not been raised in a crowded industrial setting. Since the variety of other egg labels on egg cartons are not regulated, it is impossible to know exactly what they mean, beyond trying to make us feel better about the eggs we purchase.

There is an organization, however, The Cornucopia Institute (CI), whose mission is “Promoting Economic Justice for Family Scale Farming,” and whose website can help us sort through the egg confusion. CI publishes an “Organic Score Card” for eggs. While all the eggs it evaluates are organic, the difference is in the treatment of the hens in terms of their living environment. From “Top Rated,” defined as farms that go “beyond organic” in treatment of hens to “Poor,” connoting industrial standards, this website deciphers the confusing world of eggs simply and directly. Check it out to see what it says about the eggs you are buying: www.cornucopia.org/scorecard/eggs.

With the growth of local farms and farmer markets, “organic standards” can be challenging to determine. Some local farmers may be certified as part of the USDA National Organic Program while others may be certified by even stricter animal standard organizations, like Animal Welfare Approved (www.animalwelfareapproved.us) or Certified Humane (https://certifiedhumane.org). Other local farmers may be using organic farming methods and meeting humane animal raising standards, but are not certified for a variety of reasons including time and money. Talk to your favorite local farmer about their farming standards if what you eat is of utmost importance to you.

And as for beef, pork, poultry and lamb ... well, that will need to wait for a future column.


Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at cerise.oberman@plattsburgh.edu. Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at tim.hartnett@plattsburgh.edu.

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