If you’re making an effort to become a more ethical eater, you’re far from alone. Today, more people than ever want the food they buy to be in line with their environmental, health-related, and social values. For example, when it comes to meat, eggs, and dairy products, ethical consumers want to know that what they’re eating has come from animals that were raised and cared for in a humane and healthy way.
However, finding these products in your local grocery store is not as easy as it might seem. This isn’t because they don’t exist—they absolutely do and are more readily available than ever. Instead, it’s because navigating the wide variety of labels that appears on our food these days can be a big challenge. While some terms used in food labelling have a legal definition and can only be used if specific rules are met, many other claims are completely undefined and unregulated. Unfortunately, this means that food brands (especially those that want to appeal to conscientious consumers without actually changing their production practices) can apply labels to their products that are confusing at best, and deliberately misleading at worst. Read on for a look at six common meat and animal product labels that don’t necessarily mean what you think they do.
The term “all natural” is intended to conjure images of animals grazing in green pastures and frolicking under blue skies, just the way nature intended. But in fact, this term has nothing to do with how the animals in question were raised. Rather, “natural” in this context relates to the post-processing food product itself: it simply indicates that the meat doesn’t contain artificial ingredients or added colors, and that its look and form have not been significantly changed during processing.
One of the most misleading labels you can find on a meat product is “humanely raised.” This is because “humane” does not actually have a legal definition, meaning that it does not indicate compliance with any sort of minimum agreed standard of animal welfare. Unfortunately, a meat product can therefore be labeled “humanely raised” even if the animals were raised in confinement systems or subjected to mutilations like beak trimming or tail docking.
This is another term that has everything to do with marketing and nothing to do with animal welfare or food safety standards. It certainly makes it sound like your local farmer was up at dawn that morning gathering the eggs you’re about to buy, but “farm fresh” actually has no meaning whatsoever: it does not signal better treatment for animals or better or healthier processes involved. The closest thing to a technical meaning in this phrase is “fresh,” which indicates that a meat product’s internal temperature has never gone below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
No added hormones or steroids
This disingenuous phrase is often found on pork and poultry products. The problem here is not that the claim isn’t true (it is), but that all pork and poultry products sold in the US are legally required to be free of added hormones. No growth hormones are approved by the FDA for use in raising chickens and pigs for food, so it’s actually illegal to sell any pork or poultry in the US that was raised using added hormones. Therefore, any pork or poultry product you buy in the US is guaranteed not to have any added hormones: the label is just intended to make you think that the producer is going above and beyond when it comes to health and safety.
A label saying “cage-free” only means something when you see it on a carton of eggs. This is because egg-laying hens are the only type of chicken that is legally allowed to be housed in cages in the US. Chickens that are raised for meat, on the other hand, are always required to be cage-free. So, like the “no added hormones” label described above, the label “cage-free” on a broiler chicken just means the poultry processor is complying with federal regulations. It does not mean that the labelled chicken had better living conditions than other chickens raised for meat.
Vegetarian diet or vegetable-fed
Often applied to chickens, this label makes the claim that the birds were fed a diet free from animal products. However, it’s important to keep two things in mind here. One is that chickens are naturally omnivorous—in the wild, they get many proteins from worms, bugs, or even feathers—so even if you feel happier knowing that your chicken hasn’t eaten any animal products, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily healthier for the birds. The other is that this diet, though it might make you think of chickens ranging freely in outdoor pastures, does not relate to the birds’ environment in any way. Chickens can be fed a vegetarian diet and still be housed in deplorable living conditions.