Monday, February 7, 2022

Food Product Labels – What Do They Mean? 

non-gmo food labelWhether we shop at the supermarket or the farmers market, the foods we purchase bare a wide variety of labels. And we rely on those labels to provide us with information on, among other things, how the food was grown and/or prepared, or in the case of meat and meat products, how the animals were raised.

When we choose to buy food products that we believe are better choices, based on labeling, we want to know that we’re buying food that’s healthier for our families and the environment? And most people would agree that consumers have a right to know. But, all of the branding, pictures, and / or descriptions we find on, or attached to food products or packaging can be confusing. And, sometimes, misleading.

The label I’m most-often asked about is:

USDA Organic

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program regulates the labeling requirements for organic agricultural products, including produce, dairy, meat, processed foods, condiments, and beverages. Food products labeled organic must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. And all products bearing the USDA organic label must be grown and processed without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors, artificial colors, preservatives, irradiation, and / or sewage sludge.

USDA organic food labelIt’s important to point out that ‘without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers’ does not mean that no pesticides may be used. When an organic farmer is faced with a potentially-significant loss and all other control methods have failed, the use of targeted sprays of organic-approved pesticides is permitted.

Consumers should be aware too, that specified synthetic substances are allowed in organic livestock production for use as, among other things, disinfectants, sanitizers, and medical treatments when applicable (e.g. aspirin to reduce inflammation, calcium propionate [CAS # 4075-81-4] for treatment of milk fever, vaccines).


The second most-asked about label is:

Non-GMO Project Verified

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, microorganisms, and other ingredients that have been manipulated by scientists to assist in their production, preparation, or use as food. Scientists manipulate or modify genes in ways not possible in nature or by crossbreeding.

non-gmo food labelWhether the use of GMOs is safe or not depends upon who you ask. According to the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration, GMO foods pose no risk to your health. And, in 2016, Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, in an article written by Mark Lynas, an environmental activist and author of several books on the environment, including ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’, which won the Royal Society science books prize in 2008 and was adapted into a documentary broadcast on the National Geographic Channel, declared ‘the GMO safety debate is over.’

But opponents fear that consumption of GMOs could lead to increased rates of cancer or other illness. And they have concerns about GMO field crops cross-pollinating with non-GMO and organic crops (e.g. corn, alfalfa) and the potential threat to native species, should they escape into the wild (e.g. salmon).

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that provides the only third-party labeling program in North America for products grown without genetic engineering. Their product verification program assesses products, ingredients, and manufacturing facilities to establish compliance, from seed to shelf, with their rigorous best management practices for GMO avoidance.

New GMO Labels:

Bioengineered / Derived from Bioengineering

bioengineering food labelOn January 1st, a new federal law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law (NBFDL), went into effect. Food manufacturers, importers, and retailers who package and label foods that are bioengineered (a synonym for genetically modified) or that contain bioengineered ingredients for retail or bulk food sales in the United States must disclose that information to consumers.

One way to do this is by labeling foods with bioengineered ingredients using a USDA-created ‘bioengineered’ logo and foods with ingredients derived from bioengineering, a USDA-created ‘derived from bioengineering’ logo.

Common packaging Labels for:

Chickens and Eggs:


Cage-free layer hens are kept in open indoor spaces, instead of small cages. To receive USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) approval, cage-free eggs must be produced by birds housed in a way that ‘provides unlimited access to food and water’ and ‘freedom to roam during the laying cycle.’

Free Range

Hens that produce free-range eggs must have access to fresh food and water and be able to go outside whenever they want, throughout their laying cycle. Free range facilities provide perches, nests, scratching areas, access to litter, and protection from predators.


Pasture-raised egg production is not regulated by the USDA. Third-party certifiers determine standards, so standards vary. Generally speaking, pasture raised eggs come from hens that have access to pastures and, as such, access to a natural diet (e.g. bugs, grasses, seeds), in season.



There’s no regulatory oversight or official definition for the term ‘grass-fed’ or differentiation between pastured cattle and those fed in lots, but never fed grains. All cows eat grass. But farmers typically need a year longer to fatten grass-fed cattle to slaughter-weight than they need for grain-finished cattle.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.


One Response

  1. Alan Fisher says:

    One issue you might also address is the issue of patents and the legal ramifications of accidental cross-breeding. In the case of Birkett Mills Buckwheat, their patent could bring legal prosecution to anyone who grew, harvested and then sold to anyone except Birkett Mills. Anyone who bought the patented seed from anyone except Birkett could be prosecuted. What happens when this patented loose hull seed crosses with the old fashioned tight hull buckwheat? Who gets sued? The Bee’s?

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