Organic, natural, grass-fed, pasture-raised, cage-free – these food labels used to mean something. They meant food raised on small local farms. Food raised with care and respect. They meant that the farmer’s goal was improving the environment, not pillaging it.
But nowadays, you can’t be so sure. The food industry has taken these terms and twisted them to make their products appear to be the same quality as those from sustainable local farms. This co option of said terms dilutes their value. What is the average consumer to think? They see natural, cage-free, or grass-fed on a package and assume they’re getting the same quality as what they might get from a farmers market, but much cheaper.
Look! We’re Certified. Aren’t We Great?
Industry has millions of dollars to spend on branding, marketing and pr. They love certifications. Certifications are easy to slap on a label then hide behind it. Certifications also make it easy for lazy consumers to feel like they’re buying a superior product when in reality, it may only be marginally better, if at all.
Certification is no guarantee of quality. Many people buy organic because they think it’s healthier, that it has more nutrients. But that’s not necessarily the case. Organic certification has nothing to do with nutrients. Organic specifies what’s not in the food: GMOs, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc. While eliminating these things is important, it’s only half the battle.
Most organic certified food is raised in the same systems as their conventional counterparts. Organic chickens are still raised in cramped buildings, I’m sorry “free-range barns”, as conventional chickens. Organic produce is raised in the same massive monocultures that you would be hard pressed to tell apart from conventional. That organic yogurt you bought at the store probably came from an industrial dairy. The only real difference required is the lack of antibiotics and that the feed is certified. Organic standards don’t specify that the cows must be on fresh pasture, access to a dirt yard will suffice.
There’s a pizza company in Iceland called Pizza Express, they released a brand called Artisana Range Pizzas. Sound’s artisanal, doesn’t it? That’s the idea, and the scam. Factory made pizza is anything but artisanal.
Many terms used to describe the healthfulness of food are not regulated. Anyone can call their products natural. Any meatpacker can call their beef grass-fed. Consumer Reports surveyed 1,000 adults and found that more people buy natural than organic. “We’ve seen time and again that majority of consumers believe the ‘natural’ label means more than it does,” says Urvashi Rangen, Ph.D.
Everything is Natural
I had a friend who used to tell me this fifteen years ago. And he was right. Everything is natural, everything comes from the earth. That doesn’t make it inherently healthy or dangerous. But it does sell product. While, he used this as an excuse to eat whatever he wanted, food companies use it to whitewash their industrial processed crap. Are Twinkies natural? They could be. Depends on your definition.
Natural has been twisted to make even the most unhealthy food sound healthy. People believe that products labeled as ‘natural’ will contain no antibiotics, GMOs, artificial colors, etc. The fact is, ‘natural’ means nothing. There is no standard definition for the term. No one is regulating how it is used. So companies use it however they like. Hostess cupcakes contain ‘natural flavors’. Natural flavors sound good, don’t they? After all they’re natural. But the reverse is true. Natural flavors can mean a lot of things, one of them is MSG.
More Terms That Don’t Mean What You Think
Vegetarian Fed does not pertain to where the animal was raised, only what they were fed. GMO corn and soybeans are allowed. These animals are typically raised in the same confinement buildings and feedlots as their conventionally raised counterparts. they have to be because Chickens are not Vegetarians.
Cage Free laying hens are taken from small cages and placed in crowded houses. In fact, it’s probably the same house with the cages removed. There’s still thousands of hens, but instead of being stacked in cages, they’re all crammed on one floor. Also there may have a small door in the side that leads to a dirt yard. You know, because natural.
Pasture-raised – It’s true that these animals spend their time on pasture. However, the quality of that pasture is not specified. Most cows on pasture are continuous grazing. Meaning that they stay on the same pastures until there may be no grass left. Or they selectively graze only the types of grass they like, leaving the weeds to take over. This type of grazing can destroy pasture. When grass is constantly eaten back down and cannot regrow, it dies out or grows thin. Properly managed pasture can have up to three times as much grass per square foot as poorly managed pasture.
Pasture-raised does not mean grain-free. Cows raised on said pasture can be fed as much grain per day as a feedlot cow. Since cows prefer the high carbohydrate grain, they may eat very little grass. However, they will eat grass. This helps them tolerate some of the conditions that grain feeding create. So pasture raised is still better than feedlot raised.
No Routine Antibiotic Use – Sounds like they don’t use antibiotics, doesn’t it? Instead it means that the animals are not fed continuous antibiotics in order to stimulate growth or prevent disease. However, they can be given antibiotics if they get sick. And getting sick is rather likely given the conditions they live in.
Local is supposed to mean from a small farm within a few hundred miles. But local can be twisted to mean just about anything. A couple years ago a restaurant near us began buying meat from a local farm. Everything was great for a couple months, then they stopped buying. When the farmer investigated, the restaurant told them that they went back to buying from their distributor. The distributor said that there was a CAFO located about 100 miles away, so the meat was technically local. The restaurant got to continue using the word local to promote themselves, while buying the same cheap meat as any other restaurant. Meanwhile the customers are being duped and the local farmer is one customer closer to not being in business.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Certifications
Certified Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, Non-GMO. These certifications are only necessary when you don’t know where your food is coming from. Not to mention, certification is no guarantee. The USDA cannot possibly test and check every product labeled organic. No certification agency can watch every farm and food company all the time.
Putting all your trust in third party or government agencies is not a good idea. These entities can be infiltrated by industry to get concessions. Food companies are constantly lobbying to get loopholes and other concessions in the organic standards. The very existence of organic cheese puffs is proof that the organic standards have been diluted.
When you get to know your farmer, you don’t have to rely on third parties who may or may not be overworked. Customer inspection is the best kind of inspection. Let’s take a farm serving 200 households. Perhaps 50 of those customers will want to come see the farm. That’s 50 inspections. Many of them will be short notice or even a surprise. There’s nothing like having customers around to keep you honest.
So next time you’re at the farmer’s market, ask the farmers if you can come out and visit their farm. If they say, “Sure, come on out.” then you can be reasonably sure that they’re doing things right. You don’t even have to go out yourself. As long as you know that other customers are going to the farm, you can rest assured that your farm is customer inspected. No certifications necessary.