These Labels Are So Confusing!

We probably don’t need to tell you that when it comes to deciphering labels at the grocery store, it can be a confusing experience. Not to worry, we are here to help! Below you will find the most common labels on produce, beef, dairy, and poultry in addition to common terms used in food and agriculture.

Take a look at this list before you head to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for tonight’s dinner!

Certain definitions have been borrowed from our partners, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and Farmers Market Coalition, (FMC).


[Animal Welfare Approved] [Beyond Organic] [Conventional] [COOL Labeling] [Grain Fed/Grain finished] [Grass Fed] [Heritage] [Irradiation] [Local/Locally Grown] [Natural] [No antibiotics] [No Hormones Added or Administered] [No Routine Antibiotics] [Organic] [Pastured/ Pasture – Raised] [Sustainable] [Third party certified (or verified)] [Vegetarian Fed]


 [No Hormones Added or Administered] [Local/Locally Grown] [Organic] [Raw] [RBGH/RBST free] [Vegetarian Fed]


[Animal Welfare Approved] [Beyond Organic] [Cage Free] [Conventional] [COOL Labeling] [Free Range/Roaming]  [Local/Locally Grown] [No antibiotics] [No Hormones Added or Administered] [Organic] [Pastured/ Pasture – Raised] [Sustainable] [Third party certified (or verified)] [Vegetarian Fed]


[Animal Welfare Approved] [Beyond Organic] [Conventional] [COOL Labeling] [Heritage] [Irradiation] [Local/Locally Grown] [Natural] [No antibiotics] [No Hormones Added or Administered] [No Nitrates/Nitrites][Organic] [Pastured/ Pasture – Raised] [Sustainable] [Third party certified (or verified)] [Vegetarian Fed]


[Animal Welfare Approved] [Beyond Organic] [Conventional] [COOL Labeling] [Free Range/Roaming] [Heritage] [Irradiation] [Local/Locally Grown] [Natural] [No Antibiotics] [No Hormones Added or Administered] [Organic] [Pastured/ Pasture – Raised] [Sustainable] [Third party certified (or verified)] [Vegetarian Fed]


[Beyond Organic] [Biodynamic] [Conventional] [COOL Labeling] [Fair Trade Certified] [GMOs] [Heirloom] [Integrated Pest Management] [Irradiation] [Local/Locally Grown] [Organic] [Pesticide free/no spray] [Sustainable]

Speciality Items

[Fair Trade Certified]

Animal Welfare Approved

Independent third-party certification. Animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range on true family farms with the “most stringent” welfare standards according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals in both 2008 and 2009 reports. The standards are developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers and farmers and incorporate best practice and recent research. Annual audits by experts in the field cover birth to slaughter. Species include beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs, poultry (chicken, turkey and duck), sheep, goats, rabbits and bison. (AWA)

Beyond Organic

When the US government officially approved standards for organic food, a number of farmers dropped their organic certification because they felt the organic label had been co-opted by big business, and there was a burdensome amount of paperwork that they could not keep up with. Many of these farmers raise their animals and crops using methods that are even stricter than the USDA organic standards. There has been an effort to categorize these farmers, so some people are now calling these types of farms “Beyond Organic”.


This holistic method of agriculture is certified by a third-party agency and is based on the philosophy that all aspects of the farm should be treated as an interrelated whole. Having emerged as the first non-chemical agricultural movement approximately 20 years before the development of “organic” agriculture, biodynamics has now spread throughout the world. Biodynamic farmers work in harmony with nature and use a variety of techniques, such as crop rotation and on-farm composting, to foster a sustainable and productive environment.

Cage Free

This term is most often applied to egg laying hens, not to poultry raised for meat. As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are raised without using cages, but almost always live inside barns or warehouses. This term does not explain if the birds had any access to the outside, whether any outside area was pasture or a bare lot, or if they were raised entirely indoors in overcrowded conditions. Beak cutting is permitted. No independent third party verification. (AWA)


Conventional refers to standard agricultural practices that are widespread in the industry. It can (but does not necessarily) include the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, “mono-cropping,” feedlot and confinement systems, antibiotics, hormones and other chemical approaches. Conventional farming in the U.S. may also include the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). (AWA)

COOL Labeling

The Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program. Food products, both imported and domestic, must meet the food safety standards of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The COOL law requires retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin for all commodities covered under this law. Foods that must be labeled with their country of origin are:
• Muscle cuts of beef (including veal), lamb, pork, goat, and chicken
• Ground beef, ground lamb, ground pork, ground goat, and ground chicken
• Farm raised fish and shellfish
• Wild fish and shellfish
• Perishable agricultural commodities
• Peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts
• Ginseng

Fair Trade Certified

Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers, and enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives. (AWA)

Free Range/Roaming

Defined for poultry meat only. In order to use “free roaming” or “free range” on a poultry meat label the producer must demonstrate to the USDA that poultry have access to the outdoors. However, the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the length of time animals are required to have outdoor access, and how this is verified is not legally defined, and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. There is no guarantee that birds actually go outside. When used to describe laying hens and other animals, the terms “free range” and “free roaming” are not legally defined at all, and there is no requirement to demonstrate that birds and animals have even had access to the outside, let alone any reference to other management practices. No independent third party verification. (AWA)


Genetically engineered or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants and animals whose genetic make-up has been altered to exhibit traits that they would not normally have, like longer shelf-life, a different color, or resistance to certain chemicals or pests. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that displays the desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism. There are significant concerns about the environmental impact of GM crops. Genetic modification is currently allowed in conventional farming and foods which contain GMO do not have to be labeled. The USDA also does permit the labeling of animal products from non-genetically modified animals, meaning the consumer has no way of knowing whether they are consuming products from genetically modified animals. (AWA)

To ensure you're eating GMO free foods, look for the USDA certified organic label or the Non-GMO project verified seal.

Grain Fed/Grain finished

Implies animals were fed grain exclusively or as a supplement to a forage diet. Not verified and not necessarily a positive claim in terms of welfare or meat quality.
Grain fed implies that birds were fed a vegetarian diet without actually specifying it. (AWA)

Grass Fed

100% of the diet of grass-fed animals consists of freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months or drought conditions.

This term refers only to the diet of cattle, sheep, goats, and bison. It does not indicate if an animal has been given access to pasture, or if it has been raised in a feedlot and/or given antibiotics or hormones. The USDA definition goes on to state that “if for environmental or health of the animal reasons supplementation can be used if the producer logs the type and amount.” Hence, feedlot cattle could be fed harvested forage and supplements, antibiotics and synthetic hormones and still bear the USDA grassfed label. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has an independent third party certification program available to ranchers. The AGA certified program is recognized by FSIS (the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) and verifies a 100 percent forage diet, raised on pasture that has a minimum of 75 percent cover, no confinement, no antibiotics and no added hormones. Meat purchasers seeking truly grassfed meat should source AGA certified products. (AWA)


Heirloom crop varieties, also called farmers' varieties or traditional varieties, is a term used for unique plant varieties which are genetically distinct from the commercial varieties popularized by industrial agriculture. Heirloom varieties have been developed by farmers through years of cultivation, selection and seed saving, and passed down through generations. Generally speaking, heirlooms are varieties that have been in existence for a minimum of 50 years. Note, however, that this term does not refer to any specific farming practices, such as pesticide or fertilizer use. No independent third party verification. (AWA)


No legal or regulated definition. Heritage foods are derived from traditional breeds of livestock and crops that were bred over time so that they are well-adapted to local environmental conditions and can resist local disease, for example. Heritage livestock breeds generally have slow growth rates and are well-suited for grazing on pasture. However, the term “heritage” does not guarantee that animals were raised outdoors and is not independently verified. (AWA)

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Strategies aiming to reduce the use of chemical pesticides through careful monitoring for actual pest threats. Pesticides are applied in ways to pose the least possible hazard, and are used as a last resort when other controls are found inadequate. (FMC)


Food irradiation is the process of exposing food to radiant energy in order to reduce or eliminate bacteria, therefore making it more resistant to spoilage. Food is most often irradiated commercially to reduce the numbers of pathogenic microorganisms, to extend shelf-life, or to eliminate insect pests. Food that has been irradiated must either have “irradiated” as part of the product name or be labeled with the claim “treated with irradiation” or “treated with radiation” and also display the Radura symbol. The FDA requires labeling on whole irradiated fruits and vegetables. However, the FDA does not require the “treated with irradiation” label on processed foods made with irradiated ingredients or on spices.  The USDA’s rules regarding labeling of irradiated foods are similar to the FDA’s regulations, but only apply to meat and poultry. However, unlike the FDA, the USDA requires that irradiated meat ingredients in multi-ingredient products, such as sausages, must be listed in the ingredients on the package. (AWA)

Local/Locally Grown

Food and other agricultural products that are produced, processed and sold within a certain region, whether defined by distance, state border or regional boundaries. The term is, however, unregulated at the national level, meaning that individuals can define and regulate the term based on their own mission and circumstances. (AWA)


A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as - no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).

As defined by the USDA, the term applies only to how meat from the animal is processed after it has been slaughtered. It is important to note that this commonly used term is used for meat or livestock products it does not refer in any way to how an animal was raised, so the farming system may have involved feedlot and confinement systems or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters, for example. No third party verification. (AWA)

No Antibiotics

Defined by the USDA. The terms “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Antibiotics are given to animals, such as cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens, to prevent or manage diseases. Although the USDA is accountable for proper use of these claims, there is no verification system in place. (AWA)

No Hormones Added or Administered

The term “no hormones administered” may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals. Hormones are commonly used in the commercial farming of animals such as cattle to speed the growth rate or to increase milk production.

Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” (AWA)

No Nitrates/Nitrites

Nitrites are commonly used to preserve meat and prevent the development of botulism food poisoning. However, some studies have linked the high intake of nitrites to an increased risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer. It is worth noting that some cured meat and bacon that is sold with the label “no nitrates added” has been cured with ingredients such as celery powder which is high in nitrates. (AWA)

No routine antibiotic use

Antibiotics were not given to the animal to promote growth or to prevent disease, but may have been administered if the animal became ill.


All products sold as “organic” must meet the USDA National Organic Program production and handling standards. Certification is mandatory for farmers selling more than $5,000 of organic products per year, and is verified by an accredited certifying agency. In general, organic production limits the use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other inputs. However, it does not strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access requirements – for example, confinement areas are permitted to fatten organic beef cattle. (AWA)


In general, pasturing is a traditional farming technique where animals are raised outdoors in a humane, ecologically sustainable manner and eat foods that nature intended them to eat. Animals are raised on pasture rather than being fattened on a feedlot or in a confined facility. Note this term is not regulated.

Pesticide free/no spray

Implies that no pesticide residue can be found on the crop. It does not address if pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides were applied at other points in production. No independent third party verification. (AWA)


This term refers to foods, such as milk, cheeses, cider, vinegar, sauerkraut, or almonds, that have not been pasteurized (heat treated) to a minimum of 145°F. No independent third party verification. (AWA)

rBGH/rBST free

rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) and rGBH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) are hormones used to boost milk production in dairy cattle and have been found to leave residue in the milk. This claim is not verified. (AWA)


Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.

Third party certified (or verified)

Food inspected by a company operating independently of the producer or distributor. The third party certification company confirms the legitimacy of claims made by food producers and distributors, thus ensuring that the food labels are meaningful. Organic and Biodynamic Certified are examples of third-party certification. Next to knowing your farmer or butcher, this is the most reliable way to trust the meat you're eating.

Vegetarian Fed

Animals have been fed a diet free of animal products. This does not mean animals were raised outdoors on pasture or were fed a 100 percent grassfed diet. No independent third party verification. (AWA)


    We probably don’t need to tell you that when it comes to deciphering labels at the grocery store, it's confusing! Not to worry - here are the most common labels on produce, beef, dairy, and poultry.