If you’re like me, you try to buy organic, free-range and natural products for yourself and your family. However it was a little confusing to me about what these products actually meant. Do I want to buy just organic eggs? Or eggs from chickens that have the label “free Range” on it? When I do make a trek to Whole Foods, there are a ton of products offered such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic-fed, free range’. It all sounds good, but what does it all really mean?
To grow any kind of crop and label it ‘organic’, farmers must adhere to national organic standards specified from the National Organic Program (NOP), and comply with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which are a set of standards set by the Department of Agriculture, (USDA). Phew! Now that I got all the acronyms out of the way, let’s talk about what the standards are.
In order to grow organic crops, the land must not have prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before harvest. However, the list of approved substances does contain synthetic substances. So, if you do not want these synthetics, then you need to look for the ‘natural’ labels, but keep in mind that ‘natural’ does not always mean that the product is organic. To see lists of prohibited and allowed substances for growing organic crops, click here.
I also want my food to be ‘healthy’ which The USDA states that in order for a product to be labeled healthy, it must meet certain criteria that limit the amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and require certain amounts of minerals and/or vitamins.
Organic livestock must not be given growth hormones or antibiotics for any reason. They are allowed to be given vaccines to treat sickness, but if the medicine is on the prohibited list then they may not be sold as organic. Animals must be fed products that are 100% organic, and they may contain vitamin and mineral supplements. Animals must have access to outdoors, including pastures for cattle and other cud-chewing animals. They may and will be confined for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production or to protect the water or soil quality.
For milk to be labeled organic, the cows must be managed organically for at least 12 months before their milk can be sold.
So then I learned that just because the animals may have access to pastures, it does not mean that they are treated humanely. The standards state what the animals need to be fed, not their living conditions, or how large their pastures have to be.
O.k. So then I want something that’s ‘free-range’ right? I want my meat to be organic AND come from happy cows. My mind flashes to those commercials of the California cows on the farms playing tricks on one another. Well, in doing research, I learn that free-range is not necessarily humane either. A chicken farmer can cut a hole in his chicken coop and fence in a 5’ x 5’ cement slab and label his chickens free-range. Chickens, can be free-range, but because free-range does not mean organic, they can still be genetically altered to grow abnormally big. So much bigger, so fast that their legs can’t hold all their weight and they become crippled and disabled by the time they are ready for slaughter. For more information on that, read this article here.
The American Humane Association introduced its own “Free Farmed” labeling program called the “Animal Welfare Standards”. It provides “third-party, independent verification that certified producers’ care and handling of farm animals meet the science-based animal welfare standards of American Humane Association.” However, this program is strictly voluntary by farmers. To read more about the American Humane Association, click here.
(Without getting political, I highly recommend the documentary, Food Inc. It dives into the companies that monopolize and manufacture most of our farming, which they may not want us, the public, to see. It is a very disturbing eye opener.)
So now I’m really bummed out. Everything I thought I was doing right doesn’t necessarily mean that the livestock were treated fairly. And, I don’t think it is possible to buy humane chicken or beef AND it be a natural and organic product. I’d be looking for labels that stated “Certified USDA Organic, Naturally grass-fed, approved and certified free-ranged by the AHA…oh yeah, it’s healthy for you too.” How many farms out there are doing THAT I wonder…all at a low cost to the consumer?
I think that if you are ethically inclined to buy humane products, search for local farmers that claim to be so. Tour their farms and see for yourself, then you can buy directly from them. Otherwise I think you have to choose what you are willing to budge on when buying a product. Don’t want synthetics? Buy natural, but your food may be processed and not necessarily organic. If you want organic, then buy organic, but it may contain synthetics.
There are also other alternatives; I have two neighbors that have their own chickens to harvest for eggs…AND we live in an HOA subdivision. Apparently, in my area you can have chickens as pets for their eggs and they are not considered livestock. Also, grow your own produce organically, you can do research on chemical-free pesticides. Become vegetarian or vegan. Like I said I think you have to pick your battle when it comes to food. If you have specific diet needs, it’s spelled out for you. Otherwise, judge for yourself what you’re willing to give and take.