I have a confession...The other day, I tried buying a dozen eggs at Whole Foods.
Ugh. It was awful.
I stood there staring. Hoping somewhere to find a LEGIT organic, pasture-raised, local dozen of eggs. Even though I raise certified organic meat for a living, I felt overwhelmed by all the phrases and pretty pictures that get tossed around without being defined – pasture-raised, cage-free, free-range, “all-natural”. These labels sound good, but it was so frustrating to have to dive deep to know for sure that the eggs I was selecting were from chickens who actually lived their lives outside on pasture rather than on concrete or a dirt patch.
I highly recommend A Greener World’s guide to food labels to get to the bottom of what grocery store labels seem to be saying versus what they actually mean. Here are some common questions you may have that the guide helps to answer.
Are all-natural products the same as organic products?
No– “Research by Consumer Reports says 60% of consumers look for the natural label claim…Yet this claim has absolutely nothing to do with how animals are raised, what they are fed, or if they had any access to pasture, for example. It simply means the meat contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed.”
I should buy my meat and eggs pasture-raised, right?
Maybe, but maybe not. Pasture-raised may sound similar to our practices for raising animals here at Wild Harmony, but in fact, there is “[n]o legal or regulated definition.” Pasture-raised eggs or meat “[i]mplies animals were raised outdoors on pasture. However, unless a third-party certification program defines and regulates this term, there is no way to ensure if any claim is accurate.” I generally look for this on a label but it’s important to understand that it’s just trusting the marketing team the corporation has hired. When it comes to small-scale farms, I definitely look for pasture-raised. But more importantly, I try to take a look at their operation and understand what pasture raised means to them. Management is key.
Can I count on eggs from chickens that were raised cage-free?
Unfortunately not. Cage-free does not mean that the chickens have access to pasture or to the outdoors at all: “hens laying eggs labeled as cage-free are raised without using cages, but still almost always live inside large barns or warehouses, often with several thousand other birds. Cage-free does not explain if the birds have any access to the outside, or whether any outside area provided was pasture or concrete/dirt lot, or if they were raised entirely indoors in overcrowded conditions.”
Is free-range better?
Yes and no. Although free-range animals have access to the outdoors, that does not mean they have access to pasture. A Greener World warns that “consumers should be aware that the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the size of the outdoor area, the length of time the birds are required to have outdoor access, and how this must be verified is not legally defined, and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. This claim provides no assurance of any other high-welfare or environmental management practices, and crowding is not uncommon.”
This is so confusing! What SHOULD I look for?
At Wild Harmony, our meat is certified organic and 100% grass-fed, both of which are actually defined and regulated by the USDA: “All products sold as ‘organic’ must meet the USDA National Organic Program production and handling standards. Certification is mandatory for farmers selling more than $5,000 of organic products per year and is verified by an accredited certifying agency. In general, organic production limits the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other inputs.” Similarly, “‘Grass Fed’ or ‘100% Grass Fed’ claims may only be applied to meat and meat product labels derived from cattle that were only (100%) fed grass (forage) after being weaned from their mother’s milk. The diet must be derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season until slaughter. Forage consists of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.”
That sounds great, but is “beyond organic” even better?
No! This one really gets me. I mean, I actually do think the way we farm is beyond organic. Meaning, we meet the organic standards and are certified, and then add the ethics and morals that guide us on top of the regulations. However, this is a made-up term without any regulated definition: “Beyond organic - These terms imply that products meet —and even exceed—organic standards. However, no verification of farming methods is either defined or audited to ensure this is the case.”
At the end of the day, rather than going to the supermarket and trying to make sense of all these labels being thrown at me, many of which are meaningless, I choose to go to my fellow farmers to help feed my family. I’m not perfect, and of course, go to the market for some things. But meat, eggs, and veggies... I do my very best to buy locally, from farmers I can ask questions and understand their practices. I also choose to tell you the truth about the food we raise here rather than misleading you with confusing phrases because you deserve to know what goes into the food you feed your family!