There are hundreds of food labels that could potentially be featured on the food we buy. Consumers are increasingly more particular about how safe and sustainable our food is and are demanding more transparency about how animals are raised, treated, fed, and how their meat, milk and eggs are processed.

There are guidelines and standards that food suppliers must meet to get certain food labels such as certified organic, cage-free and USDA-inspected applied to their products but there are new labels that you may be unfamiliar with and existing ones that are misleading. Let’s clarify the meaning of these labels!

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Understand What You’re Buying with this Food Labels Guide

Universal Labels

Certified Transitional Organic

As consumer demand for organic produce increases, US farmers are racing to keep up and increase the mere 1% of farmland currently certified as organic. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has partnered with the USDA to launch a new label – Certified Transitional – to signal to customers that the producer is in the process of upgrading its operations and supply chain to sell organic. It takes three years to make the transition and this is a way for producers to be able to offer affordable organic products and the USDA can close the supply/demand gap while producers undergo the lengthy and costly transition.

Natural or Naturally Raised

This label implies that the product was minimally processed and contains no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. It doesn’t make requirements for livestock living conditions, diet or the use of antibiotics or hormones, specifically.

No Antibiotics

Animals were raised without antibiotics administered to prevent disease and encourage growth but the antibiotics may lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that makes consumers sick when eating meat, milk and eggs from animals treated with antibiotics.

Non-GMO, GMO-free 

The biotech industry and the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association which represents large food companies, lobby aggressively to keep the USDA from requiring products made the GMO’s display labels that inform consumers of this. Food makers are free to voluntarily display it or use a third party certification such as the Non-GMO Project verified seal.

Beef & Dairy

Grass fed Dairy

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has been certifying grass fed beef for over a decade but this certification applies to the meat only, not the dairy products. Producers do not have to be certified organic in order to receive the AGA grassfed dairy certification. This new dairy specific standard applied to the cow’s diet, health, and living conditions. Brands such as Organic Valley have this label.

Making Sense of Food Labels

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Grass fed

This certification mandates that the primary source of nutrition for the cows comes from grass and forage, not grains such as heavily subsidized corn. However, this certification does not address the use of antibiotics or  hormones after weaning or living conditions.

No Hormones, No Added Hormones, No Synthetic Hormones, or No Hormones Administered 

The government prohibits the use of added hormones for poultry and pork. However, beef and dairy cattle can be given Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST), a growth hormone intended to aide in milk production and increase growth. For hormone-free beef and dairy, look for a rBGH/rBST-free label.

Poultry & Eggs


The standard for this label is egg-producing chickens are not raised in pens with cages but the certification doesn’t set standards for living conditions. Many of the pens are indoors and overcrowded.

Pasture-raised or Pastured

This is an unregulated label so it lacks any government standard for how little time animals can spend outdoors on pasture feeding on grass or forage.


This label is designated for poultry and means that the meat was not cooled below 26 degrees F. The chicken doesn’t have to be labeled “frozen” until it reaches 0 degrees so do not assume that chicken labeled “fresh” was never frozen at some time.


This is another unregulated label that only applies to poultry produced for meat and excludes egg-producing chickens, cattle and pigs. Similar to the cage-free label, there is no mandate for the amount of “fresh air” that the livestock experiences.

Making Sense of Food Labels

Photo: Autumn Mott via Unsplash


Organic Seafood

Beware of these labels. There are no regulated standards for organic seafood but check out Seafood Watch to find out how to make ocean-friendly seafood choices for your family.

Making Sense of Food Labels

Photo: Oscar Mikols via Pexels

To cover your bases, look for multiple food labels verified by the USDA and third party organizations such as the Animal Humane, Certified Humane and Animal Welfare labels to ensure that you’re making the most sustainable and healthy purchasing choices.

Making Sense of Food Labels

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