What Does That Food Label Mean?

In the US, food labels are required for most prepared foods.  They are mandated to list several things such as calories and dietary fiber. The label must also include any vitamins or minerals added to enriched foods.  Specific additives such as color additives must also be listed.  Finally, the FDA requires labeling of ingredients that can impact human allergies, such as milk or nuts. All of these requirements are based on scientific and medical guidance.

Recently, companies have been adding labels to increase the marketability of their products by appealing to the health consciousness of the consumer. There are FDA-approved descriptors and claims that may be added to food labels. The FDA seeks voluntary compliance from the food companies for science based labeling.  The labels are to use statements that are truthful and not misleading. They should not state or imply that organic food is superior to traditional food products.

Antibiotic Free

  • “No Antibiotics added” indicate livestock was raised without the use of antibiotics. It should also indicate that the claim is USDA verified.
  • “Antibiotic-free” is not authorized or approved by the USDA.
  • All meat is free from antibiotics due to governmental regulations and farmers compliance. After treatment with antibiotics, there is a mandatory withdrawal period to ensure there are no antibiotic residues in the animal.
  • All milk is free from antibiotics for the same reason.  Cows being treated are milked separately and that milk is destroyed. The animal has a withdrawal period and milk is tested for residue before it can be returned to the herd. The milk is also retested before it is unloaded from the tank.

All Natural

  • According to the FDA, “it is difficult to define a food product as ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the ‘product of the earth'”.
  • The FDA has not developed a definition, but does not object to the use of the term if the “food does not contain artificial colors, flavors or synthetic substances.”
  • The USDA classifies “minimally processed foods without artificial ingredients” as natural.

No Hormones

  • “No added hormones” indicates no hormones were administered during the animal’s lifetime.
  • FACT: Hormones are approved for the use in beef cattle and lamb production.
  • FACT: The use of hormones is not permitted in pork or poultry.  Using “hormone-free” or “no hormones added” labels on pork or poultry is false advertising.

Free Range

  • The USDA does not define that term for labeling.
  • The required provisions for the “free range” label use include unlimited access to food, fresh water and continuous access to outdoors.
    • Continuous access to the outdoors can mean many things. They may have access, but may prefer to stay inside with the food and water. Windows count as access.
    • Access may mean more space, but with poultry, that can lead to increased aggression and injury and worse air quality. Yes, the “pecking order” is real.

Grass Fed

  • After weaning, livestock is fed nothing but grass and other forages. 
  • Other forages include grasses, cereal grains in the pre-grain state, hay, haylage, baleage, silage, legumes and crop residue.
  • Animals must have continuous access to grass during the growing season. There are no other regulations other than what is applied to conventionally raised livestock.


  • Organic foods are produced according to the standards in the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). An Organic label means:
    • “The use of irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms is not permitted.”
    • Livestock is produced according to health and welfare standards.  No antibiotics or growth hormones can be used. Livestock is fed with 100% organic feed and provided access to the outdoors.
    • 95% of the ingredients of a multi-ingredient food must also be organic.
    • Before products can be labeled USDA Organic, a USDA-accredited certifying agent must verify the practices as compliant.
  • According to the Mayo Clinic, organic food is not safer or healthier than conventionally grown foods.

USFDA "Labeling & Nutrition. July 2015
MedlinePlus. Food Labeling.15 May 14.
USFDA. "What is the meaning of 'natural" 8 Jun 15
National Chicken Council. "Chickopedia. 20 Jul 15
Consumers Reports. June 2012
Wall Street Journal.  19 May 2016
USDA Agriculture Marketing Service Grading, Certification & Verification. 29 Sep 08
USDA "Meat & Poultry Labeling Terms"  24 Oct 14
USDA "Organic Standards" 11 Jun 15
Mayo Clinic. "Organic foods: Are they safer?"  Mayo Clinic 9 Jun 14
Illinois Farm Bureau