Making Sense of Food Labeling

Author: Sam Angima

Publish Date: Winter 2009

Food labeling is becoming more complex and confusing these days. You may see labels such as ‘Free Range’, or ‘Hormone Free’, ‘Fair Trade’, ‘Locally Grown’ etc, but what do they really mean? The food industry is experiencing tremendous growth in the organic and natural food sectors, and thus, the reason why you are seeing more of these labels and claims. Here are some explanations from USDA on labels (

Organic labels include:


USDA Certified Organic: crops grown without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised in an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. To sell ‘Certified Organic’ products, producers must meet the standards of the National Organic Program and be inspected by a licensed organic certifying agent – including a fee. USDA has begun discussions regarding the ‘Natural’ label but no certification has been granted so it is currently considered a label claim. Another label gaining in popularity is ‘Locally Grown’. Consumers are demanding their products with more intensity and have been educated on how nutritious locally grown produce can be. The concept of ‘Buy Local’ has also expanded and consumers know that their food purchasing power impacts their local environment, economy, and agricultural communities.

100% Organic: must contain only organically produced ingredients.

Organic: must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients.

Made with Organic Ingredients: must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.

Natural: the product does not contain artificial flavor, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.

Minimal processing: traditional processes used to make the food edible, preserve it or make safe or physical processes that do not fundamentally alter the raw products or that only separate a whole food into component parts (such as ground beef). There are exceptions to the use of the ‘Natural’ claim.

Hormone-Free: no additional hormones were administered to the animal beyond those that occur in the animal's natural biological processes. There is no standard definition of this method of production.

Fair-Trade: a term used to describe a social-responsibility movement demanding that farmers receive fair prices for their products; also describes products that are produced by these farmers. There is no standard definition of this method of production.

Free Range:  implies that a meat or poultry product comes from an animal that was raised in the open air or was free to roam. There is no standard definition of this method of production.
A study in Lincoln County, for example, shows that of one dollar spent locally, 68 cents stays and ‘recycles’ in the community keeping jobs and revitalizing the local economy. However, a Chile-grown apple for example has its dollar divided up according to contractual obligations among the local retailer, the grocery distributor, third-party transportation company, and finally the grower in Chile.

I think that time has come for local producers to stretch their imagination on how they can use labeling, either individually or as a cooperative, to increase their local share in sales to local consumers. There is a big and growing demand, especially in our urban areas for locally grown food. This is evidenced by the huge number of people coming and buying at local farmers’ markets. As you plan for next year’s season, think of ways to brand your product even for local consumers to increase your footprint in promoting local consumption and increase your sales.

Labelled vs. unlabelled: Labeling aids consumers to make decision on how to spend their food dollar.

Labeled vs. unlabeled: Labeling aids consumers to make decisions on how to spend their food dollar