Our food system here in the United States is a complex topic, and even more so given that the cost of goods is increasing. What differentiates between an organic product and a conventional one? Or a “grass fed” piece of meat versus “grain fed?” And what’s this “pasture raised” stuff?
Unsurprisingly, all of these terms have different meanings, and each term consequently affects the cost of the product. We’ll be breaking down what each label or food term means, clearing up any confusion, and discussing how they can all affect you as a consumer.
Let’s talk about labeling:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has specific requirements for food labels, even down to the font size and what information must be included and prominently displayed on all food packaging. Additionally, an application and verification is required for foods to be labeled as “USDA organic.” But before we get into the specs of what makes an “organic” product, let’s talk about some other labels you may see on foods in the supermarket — though keep in mind, most of these terms aren’t regulated by any official governing body. You may also see products labeled with two or three of these terms, depending on the producer.
Grass-fed – only applies to beef, lamb, and goats, as these animals can survive on grass (and hay) alone. “Grass-fed” meat implies that the animal ate little-to-no grain during the course of its life; however, some animals may have been finished on grain, meaning that they ate grain for the last two or three months of their life. If you want meat that is specifically grass-fed, with no grain, look for “100% grass fed” on the label.
Pasture-raised – “But wait,” you may be thinking, “Isn’t this the same as grass-fed?” Well… not really. “Pasture-raised” animals (cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens) are allowed to live outside for a significant portion of their lives. They have access to sunlight, fresh air, room to move around, you get the idea. In general, most pasture-raised animals are grass-fed as well; it just depends on the type of environment they were raised in and, per the “grass-fed” definition above, if they were finished on grain or not.
Grain-fed or vegetarian-fed – for cattle, “grain-fed” means that — after being weaned from its mother — the cow is sent to a feedlot and fed a diet of corn, soy, or wheat. Feedlots don’t provide much space for the cow to move around. Grain-fed is generally cheaper than grass-fed, from a farm resources standpoint. Grains are cost-effective to acquire and provide a surplus of energy for the cow, so they reach their adult weight at a faster rate. Once this happens, the cow is processed for meat. Grain-fed isn’t considered a natural diet for the cow; cows primarily forage for their food, eating grass. However, grain-fed is the conventional way of raising cattle in the United States due to its cost and product output. In poultry products, such as eggs and meat, you might see “vegetarian-fed” on the label. Most poultry feed is a corn or soy meal, much like the grain-based feed given to cattle.
Antibiotic-free and/or hormone-free – this is a term you may find under the “humanely raised” umbrella, but this means that the animal (cows, chickens, et cetera) wasn’t given antibiotics to maximize growth. This term also implies that the animal wasn’t kept in a confined or cramped space, as antibiotics are also used to keep the animals healthy when in crowded environments. “Hormone-free” means that the animal wasn’t fed exogenous hormones to speed up its growth; and it’s worth noting that federal laws prohibit hormones being administered to poultry, veal, and “exotic” meats like bison. Dairy and beef cattle, however, can be given hormones.
Free-range – a common term on egg cartons, poultry, and beef, “free-range” is similar to “pasture raised.” It means that the animal had access to the outdoors during their life, though the amount of space and the conditions of that space do not have to be disclosed to the consumer, and neither does the amount of time that the animal spent outside. This term does matter from a humanely raised perspective; chickens and cows naturally forage, so being outside allows them to engage in their instinctual behavior.
Cage-free – this term only applies to chickens, and this is one term on the list that can be a little more murky. “Cage-free” just tells the consumer that the bird wasn’t kept in a cage — that’s it. Because of this, hens can be either housed in a pasture or coop, or in a crowded warehouse. Both environments are technically “cage-free,” but obviously, one is considered more humane than the other.
Natural or naturally-raised – per the USDA, animal products labeled as “natural” or “naturally-raised” cannot contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and they have to be minimally processed. But that’s all the information we get. This term is a bit vague, because it doesn’t tell you what the animal ate or what its living conditions were. It also doesn’t tell you if the animal received antibiotics or hormones during the course of its life.
Organic – means that the animal had access to the outdoors during its life, and a couple of other things as well. More on those below, because bringing an organic product to market is a separate certification process all on its own. It also requires approval from a governing body (i.e. the USDA).
When it comes to third-party verification, there are a few agencies that provide this type of credential. For a complete list of these agencies, as well as what the seal of approval icons look like, see this link here.
What does organic mean?
Having a certified organic product is a complex process. One of the often overlooked points of buying certified organic is consumer confidence in what you are purchasing. The certified organic process requires strict documentation and origin of each ingredient. While it comes with a higher price tag for consumers, it also bring confidence that you are getting what packages indicate you are getting, and how it was handled from inception to consumer. Organic applies broadly to many different categories including produce, meats, dairy, packaged goods and supplements. There are different certifying bodies for organic the most common being USDA, Oregon Tilth and QAI. It’s important to look for their seal of approval when an organic claim is made, otherwise there is no guarantee that it is actually certified organic.
In order to be considered “certified organic,” the farm or producer has to implement certain practices first.
The farmers and businesses producing organic products — either plants or animals — must:
Feed their animals an organic diet — no genetically modified feed, no animal byproducts.
Not administer any antibiotics or hormones to their animals.
Provide their animals with access to the outdoors — in the case of cattle, these animals must have access to a pasture.
Not clone their animals.
Not use synthetic, artificial, or sewage sludge fertilizers on crops.
Not synthetic pesticides.
Not genetically modify any of their crops.
Not use radiation to preserve food or remove pests.
All that said, organic farmers are allowed to use animal manure as natural fertilizer. They are also allowed to:
Rotate crops to keep the soil healthy.
Use mulch to control weeds.
Use natural pesticides as a last resort, but must coordinate their use with their certifying agent (more on this below)
Adopt sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices, such as self-sustaining resources on the farm, cutting pollution, and focus on improving soil and water quality.
When these practices are in place, the producer must then submit an application to a USDA-accredited certifying agent. The agent reviews the application to ensure that the producer is complying with USDA-organic practices, and an inspector visits on-site to verify the claims on the application. The inspector’s report goes back to the agent, who then uses this material and the application to verify — again — that the producer is following USDA-organic practices. After all this, the agent issues the organic certification to the producer, and they may begin labeling their products with the “organic” seal you see in the grocery store.
There’s also a transition period; any land used to produce organic products must not have prohibited substances applied to it for 36 months prior to certification. During the transition period, producers can’t label a product as “organic” or use the official USDA organic logo.
The cost of organic certification really depends on the size, type, and complexity of the producer’s operation. Additionally, cost may also be determined by which certifying agent is used. The costs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, making this no small feat for manufacturers, farmers, and businesses alike.
Is there a difference between organic and non-organic products?
Yes, there are some differences between organic and non-organic products. Organic foods can have a slightly higher amount of micronutrients, such as antioxidants (in plants) and omega-3 fatty acids (in meats), when compared to conventional ones. Organic plants and grains can also have less pesticide residue and less toxic metals, like cadmium.
It’s worth noting that the amount of pesticide residue allowed in conventional products has been lowered in recent years. Additionally, organic produce may still contain some pesticide residues, due to airborne pesticides from conventional farms or because of the pesticides allowed in organic farming.
The biggest difference between organic products and non-organic products, however, is going to be the financial cost of goods and consumer confidence in what you are purchasing.
How does this affect the cost of goods?
Ultimately, organic products — and products that are grass-fed, cage-free, or any of the other labels above — cost more for two reasons: cost to produce, and consumer demand.
Organic or humanely-raised meat and animal products cost more because of the demands placed on the producers. As we discussed, there are more rules and regulations for producers to follow, specifics on the type of feed used, et cetera, along with the cost of certification. But retailers are also affected, because they need to allocate appropriate shelf space to accommodate organic products and prevent organic and non-organic products from coming into contact with each other. (As an example here, think about the bulk foods aisle in your grocery store — there are separate containers for all the organic and non-organic products, and the chance of cross-contamination is high.) These additional costs need to be paid back somehow, and therefore, it falls on the consumer to pay the premiums.
Demand for organic products has also gone up in recent years. More consumers are preferring organic or humanely-raised products due to health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns. According to the USDA, nationwide sales of organic products were estimated at $37 billion in 2015; and in 2020, that number increased to $61.9 billion.
It’s also important to note that in categories of products with no FDA regulation like supplements buying certified organic can bring quite a bit of peace of mind. It means what’s on the label is what you are actually getting in the package and it’s been handled with the utmost care from inception to consumer.
The bottom line:
Food labeling has become a much broader category, and the specific definitions of those labels can often fail to disclose all of the information related to the product before it reaches grocery store shelves. We’re not here to tell you one label is better than another or that you should only purchase organic goods. Our goal is to help educate, inform, and differentiate between the labels on products. Nutrition and food are highly personal choices; you must do what is best for you, your budget, and the people you take care of.
Author Maddie Hays, MScN, is a certified Personal Trainer at Hyatt Training. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition from the National University of Natural Medicine and is a licensed nutritionist in Washington. As a nutritionist and trainer, Maddie is passionate about the relationship between food and exercise for optimal health. Learn more about Maddie, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.