Food labels do a lot of things – they are home to standardized, regulated information like the Nutrition Facts section and marketing ploys such as unregulated claims, product promotions, or celebrity endorsements. But, with labels seemingly only getting more complicated with more colors (read: green washing techniques) and more terminology, what phrases and words found on U.S. food labels are actually based on science, and what stuff is simply plastered on the label to get you to buy?

In this series, we’ll explore some of the most common label terms found on products in the U.S. We’ll determine whether or not they’re actually regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – or if the terminology is little more than fancy words and phrases meant to play to your emotions and get you to load up your grocery cart.

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Today, we’ll look at terms describing the so-called humanity of dairy and meat products, such as “free range,” “cage free,” and “grass fed.” What the heck does this really mean? Do these label claims actually say anything about the product you’re considering taking home with you.

Free range

This term is often found on meats, eggs, and dairy products, but the USDA only regulates use of the term as applied to poultry like chickens and turkeys. That means all beef, lamb, pork products (and so on) labeled as free range aren’t actually regulated by the USDA.

Now, here’s the USDA governance for the term as used with poultry: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”

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But, there’s still a problem, according to the Humane Society of the United States:  “No information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals is defined. Painful surgical procedures without any pain relief are permitted.” In other words, the animals may get some outside time, but we don’t know if that means five minutes or five hours a day – and this term still doesn’t save animals from potential pain, regardless.

Cage Free

This term applies typically to eggs and egg products. “Cage free” basically means the birds have never been confined in a cage.

Here’s the scoop on who regulates it: “USDA-FSIS pre-approves labeling claims for egg products such as pasteurized liquid eggs and cooked eggs. Shell egg claims are handled by USDA-AMS. According to David Bowden, chief of the Standardization Branch of the AMS Poultry Program, AMS personnel monitor shell egg claims for compliance with established criteria. The USDA shares responsibility for regulation of egg production with the FDA; however, the FDA focuses on public health issues and does not allocate resources for the monitoring of animal handling-related marketing claims. Neither AMS nor the FDA pre-approve labeling claims for shell eggs.”

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And how relevant is this claim? According to the Humane Society, it does matter for eggs: “Unlike birds raised for eggs, those raised for meat are rarely caged prior to transport. As such, this label on poultry products has virtually no relevance to animal welfare. However, the label is helpful when found on egg cartons, as most egg-laying hens are kept in severely restrictive cages prohibiting most natural behavior, including spreading their wings.”

Farm Sanctuary supports the relevance of the claim, too. “Given that 98 percent of eggs in the U.S come from hens confined to small cages, the term ‘cage free’ has significant implications for animal welfare.” However, this system isn’t foolproof because of overcrowding: “While eggs labeled as ‘cage free’ most likely come from hens not confined to a cage, the housing density may be so high that some of the problems associated with caging are experienced.”

Grass Fed

The USDA-FSIS also regulates this term. Here’s what it currently means: “FSIS currently defines ‘grass fed’ as the feeding regimen for livestock raised on grass, green or range pasture, or forage throughout their life cycle, with only limited supplemental grain feeding allowed during adverse environmental conditions. In 2002, the USDA-AMS proposed the following definition for grass fed: ‘Grass, green or range pasture, or forage shall be 80 percent or more of the primary energy source throughout the animal’s life cycle.’”

The Humane Society claims that even with these guidelines, “painful surgical procedures without any pain relief are permitted.”

How relevant is this claim to animal welfare? Farm Sanctuary isn’t so convinced this one is helpful: “Although consumers are likely to associate the term ‘grass fed’ with the concept of free roaming or pasture raised livestock, under the current definition, ‘grass fed’ means considerably less in terms of animal welfare. This definition would allow cattle to be regularly confined in a feedlot or barn as long as they were fed grass or other forage. In addition, since grass or other forage is only required to comprise 80 percent of the animal’s energy source under the proposed definition, 24 producers would be allowed to raise cattle on pasture until the final few months of the animals’ lives, at which point they could be moved to a feedlot and fattened on corn.”

Next time you see these terms plastered on meat and/or dairy products, take heed: while some terms help animal welfare (cage free) in a small sense, other claims (free range and grass fed) are a bit more open to interpretation!