Many people believe that by reading food labels they are making informed purchases, but the truth is labels like cage free, free range, grass-fed, organic, wild caught, etc. are giving consumers a false sense of knowledge and control. As I’ve said in previous posts, the food industry does its best to make sure consumers are seeing what big companies believe will make them the most money rather than the truth. So, that being said, what do all these labels really mean? Let’s take a look at some of the most common labels.
Cage-free, a label that has no legal definition and, therefore, can be very deceiving. This is a term we see on eggs and refers to the hens that lay them. While these birds may be cage free, it is very likely that they live inside a long barn with little to no sunlight and no access to the outdoors. They live in crowded conditions, have their toes and beaks clipped off without any pain relief to stop them from injuring each other, are often kicked and abused by workers, and if injured, they are simply left to die.
Next is free-range, a term also not regulated by the USDA other than the fact that animals with this label have access to outdoor areas. There is no definition for how long these animals spend outdoors and legally there is no requirement that these animals go outdoors, only that they have access. However, if the only form of “access” is one small opening at the end of a barn that nearly all of the animals are unable to reach due to overcrowding or the inability to walk, that is just fine by free-range standards. The reality is your free-range meat likely never felt the sun or ran through grass before slaughter.
What about grass-fed? Most people associate this with cattle, but the label also applies to sheep, goats, and bison. These animals have a diet of grass/hay, but most of them get this grass on feed lots and not from an actual pasture. A feed lot is a contained area, often overcrowded, where the animals stay to basically fatten up before slaughter. Animals on feed lots are likely standing knee-deep in their own waste.
As for fish, wild-caught means the fish weren’t raised on fish farms. DO NOT buy into this idea that wild-caught is somehow a better alternative because it’s more “natural,” both are harmful and should be avoided at all costs. Our fishing methods are so unsustainable that our oceans are predicted to be fishless by 2048. That is crazy to me. In addition, our fishing practices kill all sorts of sea life, including endangered species, through bycatch. In a future post I’ll examine our fishing practices, so keep an eye out for that.
Natural, this doesn’t mean much when it comes to food. The product has “no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed,” (PETA) but these animals probably received antibiotics and hormones.
No antibiotics and no hormones are pretty self-explanatory labels. These animals should not have been treated with antibiotics or hormones. No hormones refers to cattle, as other livestock are not allowed to be given hormones, but rather use altered genetics and selective breeding methods to achieve similar outcomes.
Organic labels on meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy means they did not receive antibiotics or growth hormones. However, research by the USDA actually stated that “fewer than 3 percent of cows on dairy factory farms and fewer than 2 percent of chickens are raised in accordance with these standards” (PETA). A label that simply states “organic” has 95-99% organic ingredients, while the label “made with organic ingredients” means 70-94%, as opposed to labels reading “100% organic” (organic.org).
Kosher means the animal was slaughtered by someone educated in the Jewish procedure for slaughter in which the throat is meant to be slit quickly and render the animal unconscious (though this is not always the case). While these animals are not pre-stunned by a bolt gun to the brain (another procedure that is not always successful), investigations have shown how kosher standards are not always upheld.
Overall, these labels can be very deceiving, and while some hold true to their claims, absolutely none of these labels take into account the welfare of the animals. Every dollar you spend sends a message to major food companies and how they operate, and while choosing certain labels may seem to give livestock a more “natural” upbringing, the reality is that there is nothing natural about factory farms or about the sick, inhumane ways animals are treated on them. The fact is unless you’re raising and slaughtering the animals yourself, you can’t be sure of how it was done because labels are not accurate depictions and their guidelines are often ignored. Don’t be fooled by labels, leave meat and dairy off your plate!
Check out this guide to food labels for more information.