What do USDA labeling claims for local farm products really mean?

Are the farm raised products your eating really what they say they are? Is the USDA really helping consumers with food labeling?

Greetings from the Farm!

Bob and I recently received our AWA (Animal Welfare Approved) certification for our eggs and our beef at High Point Farms!  (The pork we sell comes from another farm that also has AWA certification for its pork.) This FREE certification is a time-consuming paperwork process each year on the part of the farmer.  We believe in these standards and feel it is worth it; especially for those customers who are unable to visit the farm.  This certification adds to the level of comfort for a consumer.   The standards are for the humane treatment and feeding of farm animals raised for consumption.

The Animal Welfare Approved program audits and certifies family farms raising their animals humanely outdoors on pasture or range. Farmers who earn the AWA seal benefit from having a third-party verification of their high-welfare practices and consumers benefit by knowing that the humane label means what it says. Animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range on true family farms with the “most stringent” humane animal welfare standards according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Annual audits by experts in the field cover birth to slaughter. AWA is able to offer this certification and technical and marketing services to farmers at no charge. Because AWA is not financially dependent on farmer fees, the program is unbiased and completely transparent.  To learn more visit: http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/

So, after receiving final approval and reading the other materials provided I got to thinking:  Do our customers really know what they’re eating??  You want to trust your butcher or your restaurant you’re supporting, but what do the claims on the meat labels really mean? Note: All descriptions given for the USDA use of these terms come from AWA guide: Food Labeling for Dummies.  Here is the link if you care to read more: http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Food-Labelling-for-Dummies-screen-v8-10-26-12.pdf

The term GRASSFED by definition of the USDA:

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.

According to the USDA the animals can be raised in confinement, given growth hormones and antibiotics and the loose-term supplements.   Is that what you would consider grass-fed when you purchase it from an unknown source?  How many grocery stores and restaurants are selling/serving this product and the consumers are none the wiser!?

Another HOT term is ORGANIC. ORGANIC /CERTI FIED ORGANIC as defined by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: 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. For information about the National Organic Program and use of the term “organic” on labels, refer to these fact sheets from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service: The cost for this is around $800 per year. Not a certification we believe in when according to the definition, confinement of animals to fatten is acceptable.  To us confinement is NOT acceptable. Is that what you think when you think of organic?  Don’t get me wrong, not all organic farmers use this practice; you just have to know your farmer!
PASTURED/PASTURE-RAISED
No legal or regulated definition. Implies that animals were raised outdoors on pasture. However, since the term is not regulated or certified, there is no way to ensure if any claim is accurate.

On to labeling of eggs.  Many terms are used in grocery stores to get you to buy their product.  Free-Range, Cage Free are just a couple terms used for marketing.  Here are the USDA definitions:

FREE-RANGE /FREE-ROAMING (Eggs) (for any species aside from poultry meat) No legal or regulated definition. Buyers should be aware that 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 must be verified is not legally defined and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. There is no requirement to demonstrate to the USDA that birds and animals have even had access to the outside, let alone any reference to other management practices. Also, there is no independent third party verification. CAGE –FREE (EGGS) No legal or regulated definition. 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.

When you think of Cage Free or Free Range don’t you assume the birds have outdoor access???  I guess we shouldn’t assume; especially when we don’t know the farmer.

Chicken for Meat: To be true to our customers we must tell you our meat chickens are NOT Animal Welfare Approved!  We meet all the criteria right up to slaughter.  We raise Freedom Ranger birds; not the highly genetically modified Cornish Cross. We have proper growing standards with them being free to roam with lots of grass.  The way we transport them to butcher is humane.  Where the criteria falls away is with our Amish butcher who does not use a stun gun prior to butchering.  This device costs almost $2000.  A cost neither the Amish nor we want to absorb.  The AWA feels the bird suffers less at slaughter if they are first stunned.  We are not sure we agree, but that is the requirement to have chicken AWA certified.  Therefore, we do not have approval for our meat chicken.  Also, Kosher standards do not allow stunning.  Something to remember.
Here is the USDA approved terms:
FREE-RANGE /FREE-ROAMING (Meat Chickens) Definition by USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (for poultry meat ONLY) Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. Buyers should be aware that the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the length of time the birds are required to have outdoor access, and how this must be verified is not legally defined and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. Crowding is not uncommon. No independent third party verification.Beware when you see the aforementioned  terms.  They may not really be pasture raised after all!  And because you don’t know the farmer you may never be sure.

If we paid for these certifications our products would be considered and viewed the same as those products that were fed and raised to standards most consumers wouldn’t consider correct or humane.
We encourage you to visit the farms you buy from!  If you can’t physically go there at least visit their website.  If farm visits are not allowed I would say BEWARE!  They may not be a farm at all!  Some “farms” are just a distributor!  However, not all distributors and sellers are bad.  Some have contracts that their farmers must abide by and they follow up with regular visits to be sure the farms are abiding by those standards. You just have to cautious.   After all, this is food you’re feeding yourself and your family.

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