Food Labeling and the Conscious Consumer

Natural. Grassfed. Pasture Raised. Organic. These are only a few of the marketing stamps, seals and buzzwords jumping off food labels strategically placed to catch the eye of would-be conscious consumers. While these potentially exclusionary options might not be for everyone (partly due to food accessibility and equity), the marketing world of messaging can be a tricky landscape to navigate for those seeking to make food purchases that align with their values of humane animal treatment, sustainable and regenerative practices, ethical and fair sourcing and/or health concerns, to name a few. According to Daisy Freund of the ASPCA, “Well-meaning people are making choices that don’t actually support their values.” The problem is three-fold: misleading descriptors, undefined terms and lack of accountability.

Aware of the rise in conscious consumerism, many marketing teams use misleading buzzwords as the hook. For instance, some labels say “hormone-free” on pork and chicken products; however, the law requires that these be hormone-free. And while those companies aren’t doing anything illegal, different or extra than what is already mandated, they appear to be manipulating the fact that “hormone-free” has become a priority for many consumers and applying the descriptor to lure them in. Similarly, the “cage-free” label on turkey or chicken meat products is misleading—birds raised for meat aren’t generally kept in cages. Many savvy consumers know about the caging of egg-laying hens, though, which leads them to seek out the “cage-free” label for meat without realizing the descriptor only adds value to eggs.

A second, yet equally problematic, concern is that few of these labels have legal definitions. For example, “natural,” “humane” and “sustainably farmed” are terms commonly found on food labels to sway consumers, yet none of these has a legally binding or agreed-upon definition. Marketers can use these words indiscriminately with no ramifications, and we, as consumers, insert our own perceived notions of what each means. Even the word “grassfed” has no regulated definition. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service previously defined the standards for “grassfed” as meaning the animal was fed grass at some point in its life, yet withdrew its standard in January 2016 and no longer provides verification. The result is that USDA beef is commonly labeled “grassfed” without any clear definition of what that means and, more disturbing, there’s the possibility that the animal may have never been fed any grass. In response, independent groups, such as the American Grassfed Association (AGA), have created their own certifications so that a stamp or seal bears with it a specific connotation of standards by a producer. Additionally, the AGA is a self-policing group, so when consumers see the AGA label, they know it means the animal was only fed grass and forage from weaning until harvest; was raised on pasture without confinement to feedlot; was never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones; and originated in the U.S.

While some certifying groups have helped create definitions for those companies that choose to adhere to them, even this realm is a slippery slope, and the certification itself can’t be taken as a given for all production standards. For instance, the American Humane Association says its label of American Humane Certified (AHC) means a product has “met rigorous, science-based welfare standards and the animals in the program were humanely raised.” Other animal welfare organizations argue that the AHC standards are minimal, because they allow for caged egg-production and feedlot-finishing, among other practices. When shopping by certification, know what is being certified and what isn’t.

A final piece of the puzzle is the lack of accountability and enforcement; that is, how can consumers confidently know that a producer adheres to practices in line with their values? The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is our government agency in charge of overseeing labels. Greg Gunthorp, a pig farmer in Indiana, regularly advocates for small farmers at a quarterly USDA stakeholder meeting with small processors. Speaking about labeling standards at last summer’s Slow Food Nations festival in Denver, Gunthorp noted that there are only 16 employees at FSIS to review more than 400,000 labels annually. Clearly, there’s little chance that each of those production sites is inspected for compliance of what they say they do. While some certifications help verify a producer’s standards, they have different application requirements and third-party audit requirements. Moreover, some certifications that require audits lack the follow-up enforcement to ensure the audits are carried out.

Where does this leave the intentional shopper aiming to make purchases that support specific values? Between misleading, undefined descriptors and a lack of transparency, we can hardly expect to pull out our phones and research every label and certification stamp we see. Unless we know what all the labels mean, and which words have legal and binding definitions, we can’t rely on them or be swayed by buzz-marketing. An immediate action step is to buy from someone who knows what they’re talking about, if possible. In other words, ask the person selling the food to tell you about it.

Many food producers work hard to acquire certifications and support organizations that share their values. However, keep in mind that a lot of responsibly produced food bears no labels at all. Research what applies to each industry—for instance, animal needs and standards vary greatly from the dairy to the meat industry. And again, if possible, develop relationships with the people who make and sell your food. People who truly believe in what they do will always be ready to tell you how they do it and why that makes their food worthy of your purchasing dollar. 

Questions to Ask Food Producers 

While an answer one way or another doesn’t necessarily mean a food is “good” or “bad,” these questions will help inform your decision to buy: 

• Where does the item come from?

• Did you raise it? Grow it? Process it?

• Was the animal on pasture? For how much of its life? How do you define that?

• What was the animal’s diet?

• Are you the farmer? 

• What is your antibiotic policy?

• Do you have any certifications? What did you have to do to become certified and how often do you have to reapply?


Also, check out these resources to discover what labels actually mean:

By Kendall Antonelli • Illustration by Will Heron