How to translate deceiving food labels: Here's what 'free range' and 'locally grown' really means

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - It's hard to miss labels and signs at the market, like "organic," "cage free" and  "locally grown."

You think you're making healthy, responsible choices when you select these often higher priced items, but does the average consumer know the real nutritional and ethical difference when it comes to things like meat and eggs?

"Not off the top of my head," admitted West Side Market shopper Pat Bennett.

On the 200-acre Wholesome Valley Farm on the border of Holmes and Stark County, their beef, pork, chicken and turkey are all "pasture based."

That means the animals eat outside all year long.

"For us that means chicken is a seasonal meat, raise only in the summer time on green pasture. The pork is raised outside year round in the woods in the winter time and in the fields in the summer time. And beef, they eat grass all summer long and forage that we store all winter long," said Trevor Clatterbuck, with Wholesome Valley Farm in Stark County.

He said quality is the company's number one motivation because that's what the consumer is asking for.

"They're looking for those type of products that's healthy for their body, healthy for their environment and they have a hard time finding a trusted source for 100 percent grass fed beef or pasture raised hogs, or pasture poultry. That's where we have found our niche," he said.

"I think we are what we eat. You feel better," said Bennett.

Consumers like Bennett said shoppers are motivating farmers to share more about how their food is produced.

"I don't think that's a trend. I think it's here to say and I think that it's a good thing," she said

Here's the breakdown of the organic labels you'll see at the grocery store or market:

  • In order to carry the 100 percent Organic label, items must be produced exclusively with organic methods defined by the USDA.
  • For an organic label and certification seal, 95 percent or greater of the ingredients must be organically produced. The rest must come from the list of allowed synthetics.
  • The "Made with Organic" label means 70-95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced.
  • Products labeled "Less than 70 percent Organic" can include the specific percentage of organic ingredients used on the information panel.

Here's a handy guide to print or save for reference:

USDA Inspector, Joel Kurtz, said they look at how animals are raised before granting organic certification.

"They need to be outdoors for a certain length of time. That needs to be documented. We need to see the facilities, make sure they're correct and make sure there's enough housing so they're not crowded," he said.

How about "free range?"

Kurtz said producers can legally label chickens free range if the animals are raised in conventional chicken houses with a small opening for them to go outside.

"There's a huge difference between growing a chicken inside a building, feeding it grain and allowing it to see a sunlight shining through a little door versus having outside in a covered structure and moving that structure and moving that structure on fresh grass all the time," Kurtz said.

He added "cage free" means the chickens are allowed to roam but only inside.

He said it's more of an ethical choice than a nutritional one. Same goes for no antibiotics.

Eggs and meat with those labels sell because people think they're getting healthier products.

"It's trying to capitalize on that gray area that we know about, but profit from doing it not necessarily free range, but legally being able to call it free range," said Kurtz.

The other potentially deceiving label is "locally grown."

Definitions vary and there are no USDA guidelines for that label so you've got to trust the source who's telling you where the product is coming from.

Meat labeled "All natural" means no artificial ingredients or color was added, and the product wasn't altered.

As you might have guessed, the higher the standard the higher the price, because it takes significantly more time and resources to raise animals this way.

According to Clatterbuck, they way their animals are naturally fed changes the flavor.

"So for beef, if you're doing it right, grass fed beef will be a little leaner than a confinement feed beef. But you get good marbling, and a richer flavor," he said.

Bennett agreed and said things do taste better.

She said she is willing to make tough choices to shop for the best she can afford.

"What we eat determines how I feel. If I am eating things that are fresh, that are clean, that are pure, I feel better," she said.

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