Food labels can be very confusing and sometimes even misleading. These days many people want to know more about how their food was produced and as a result more food is being labeled with titles of natural and organic. Because these terms can get confusing, I thought it might be helpful to break down the meanings of each in order to help people make the best choice for themselves. This explanation looks specifically at meat products.
Organic – specifically you want to look for the term “certified organic” as opposed to terms used at Farmer’s Markets such as “organically raised”. Certified Organic is a term regulated by the US Department of Agriculture and the certification process to verify that producers are indeed meeting the USDA regulations is completed by a third party verification organization. Here in California, CCOF is one of the most commonly used certifying agencies. One of the many reasons that organic products are more expensive is that the farmers must pay numerous fees for the third party verification. The third party verification is a time consuming process with LOTS of paperwork.
Animals that meet the organic certification are those that were produced on certified organic land. The land must be verified to have been free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years before it can be certified. Once certified, only organic approved products can be used on this land.
Livestock produced organically must never be treated with synthetic antibiotics nor can they be supplemented with synthetic hormones. All treatments and vaccines administered to organic livestock must be approved as organic by the USDA.
Feed is a big issue in the production of organic livestock. All feed that organic animals eat must also be certified organic. Any grains that they consume must be organic and as a result are non-GMO grains. This also means that the grain crop was never treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and herbicides.
There are many different rules regarding access to pasture and or outdoor space for organic livestock too. Cattle specifically must have access to pasture during the productive season of the pasture. Animals like hogs (which must get a majority of their diet from grains due to their digestive system – they cannot live on grass alone) must have access to yards and outdoor areas. There are also more specific rules about animal treatment and allowed production practices for each species.
Organic meats must even be harvested (butchered) organically. This means the facility that does the harvesting must be organic and meet the same standards and pay for the verification that the farmer does. This is another added cost to the producer and a challenge to find a facility that does butcher organically.
The most important thing to know about organic is that it is a regulated term that requires third party verification.
Natural – this term gets the most confusing and is used in a wide variety of ways. In general, natural just means “minimally processed” but that usually just means that little is added to the meat. Most traditionally produced meat can fall under this definition. If the package just says “natural” that literally means the meat has been minimally processed, nothing else.
But most products labeled natural on the package will have some additional definition as to what the term means on their particular product. And claims made on a package label must be approved by USDA and have some sort of verification system to document the claims.
Here are a few common claims that you may see on natural labels and what they typically mean:
No Antibiotics – this means that the animal was never treated with antibiotics.
No Hormones – this label is a pet peeve of mine because all animals naturally have hormones, as people do. What these labels should read is No Added Hormones which would indicate that the animal was never treated with supplemental hormones.
Free Range – this is used pretty commonly in pork and poultry and should mean that the animal has access to pasture or a paddock.
But if the label of your meat just says natural, then all that means is that it was minimally processed. If you are looking for a specific issue, you need to be sure your meat is labeled with that claim or perhaps consider an organic product. Natural products will be less expensive than organic because there is not the expense of the third party verification and other production costs are typically lower.
There are several other issues that we have skipped such as what traditional or conventional products are and how they are raised, the challenges of processed (think bacon and sausage) organic products, what is a GMO grain and why do people care, the stringent regulations of antibiotic use to keep animals and the food supply healthy, the animal handling and treatment requirements for organic and an issue that is important to consider – what do the farmers feed their own families? These issues will be addressed in future posts.
So what is the right label for you? That just depends on what you are comfortable with, your budget and even where you purchase your food. Purchasing food directly from the farmer is a great option for people who have specific concerns about the production of their food. Sometimes the relationship with the farmer is all you will need to be reassured about the quality and wholesomeness of the food they produce – whether they label it organic, natural, or traditional.
This post was a collaboration between Sarah, an organic pork producer, and Shannon, a natural beef and pork producer - all I did was edit and link up! Thanks Sarah and Shannon!!