Learn the Language of Labels

This article is brought to you by the High Desert Food and Farm Directory 2017 Check out the full directory here! 


On average, supermarkets are filled with 42,000 different products – and what can feel like almost that many labels.  Each of us has our own priorities for what we feel is important.  It can be confusing to figure out what’s true and verified, or what’s unregulated or a gimmick. Understanding the basics of  labels can help you decide what works best for you and fits your values.

While some labels are legally defined, others are not. To help you navigate, the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance put together tips and information about some of the more common labels so you know what you’re buying.

First Tip: Differentiating between the label and the actual farming practice or animal’s welfare is important. For example, chicken that is labeled “organic” does not necessarily mean that the hens were raised in a humane manner.

  • A label is a claim – or a value statement – made on a product which may or may not be certified or verified by the government or another agency
  • A regulation is a rule or definition that is maintained by an authority
  • Certification means the product is verified to meet regulations set by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), or go beyond government standards

More tips to help you shop smart:

  1. Look for a recognized symbol
  2. Look for a definition of the word
  3. Ask your farmer



HDFFA defines local as the tri-county region of Central Oregon.  Ask around and you’ll probably find that everyone has a different definition.

Free Roaming/Pasture Fed/Meadow Raised

These labels refer to the environments in which animals are raised and must either be connected to a certified symbol or have a definition on the product to verify the claim.

Grass-Fed/Grain-Finished/Vegetarian Fed

Labels referring to an animal’s diet clarifies what they  have been fed throughout their lives, and requires that they have only eaten the diet claimed on the label.


This term has USDA guidelines, but no regulation, and suggests that a product does not contain artificial ingredients or colors and is only minimally processed.  Individual companies can, and do, make up their own definitions for their products.

Cage-Free Chicken

This is not a regulated label since conventionally grown meat birds are typically not grown in cages, but rather large open structures.

USDA-Regulated Labels

Cage-Free Eggs

Hens must be housed in a way gives them unlimited access to food and water, and freedom to roam during the laying cycle.  This doesn’t mean they aren’t in cages at some point during their lives, or that they have access to the outdoors. Look for egg cartons with the US Grademark seal to verify USDA certification.

Shell Egg Grade ATriShield

Free-Range Poultry

This label is for poultry only and means that the birds must have access the outdoors.  However, this may only be a “pop-hole” with no full-body access.  There is no definition for non-poultry animals.

Raised without Hormones

Hormones are only approved for use in beef-cattle and sheep – they are not allowed with hogs or poultry (including laying hens).  If you see the claim on beef, it is valid if sufficient documentation shows no hormones have been used to raise the animal.  Look for the USDA Process Verified Seal.


Raised without Antibiotics

Producers must provide sufficient documentation showing that no antibiotics were used in the feed, water or injections when raising the animal.  Look for the USDA Process Verified Seal.

USDA Organic

Farms must meet approved methods to protect natural resources and conserve biodiversity, and are only allowed to use approved substances.



GMO-Free. This label is verified by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit, and is not government regulated. This label verifies that a product does not contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms).


If you see these logos on your products, you know that your food has been certified and meets or exceeds USDA standards: the Oregon Tilth® logo tells you the product is organic, and the American Humane® or Processed and Certified Humane® logos ensure that animals are treated humanely in the way they are raised, fed and processed.

Animal Welfare Approved is based in Terrebonne and is a HDFFA Sponsor.  They certify that animals are raised following the highest standards. Only family farms are approved. Standards are unique to each type of animal and are very comprehensive.


Sources: Consumer Reports, Greener Choices, USDA Labeling Guideline and USDA FSIS Compliance Guidance for Label Approval

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