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This 101 comes to us from the Food Labeling page on Farm Aid's website. Click over for more resources and information about keeping family farmers on the land. 

There are lots of different food labels out there providing information about how food items are grown or processed—a good start, for sure, but some labels can be misleading. Below are examples of common labels you might see in the grocery store or the market, along with a short explanation of what each label means. But if you come across a label and aren't sure what it implies about the food it's attached to, the best and most important thing you can do is to ask: Ask a manager, ask a store employee. Asking shows that you're interested and that you care where your food comes from. Don't get a satisfying answer—or hungry for more info? You can always send your questions about food labeling to Ask Farm Aid.



USDA's National Organic Program regulates labeling requirements for organic agricultural products. Products that might bear this label include produce, dairy, meat, processed foods, condiments, and beverages. Food products labeled “organic” must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, synthetic ingredients, or irradiation used in production or processing. Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and are produced without synthetic methods are labeled “made with organic ingredients” and cannot use the USDA organic seal.

Certified Naturally Grown

This label denotes food that was grown using the same standards as those for organic but not on a farm officially certified by the USDA's National Organic Program. Some farmers have criticized the cost and process required to participate in the USDA's program, so this label represents an alternative, non-governmental certification system, wherein fellow farmers act as inspectors, with the nonprofit organization Certified Naturally Grown acting as the administrator. You might see the term “natural” on a lot on food products, some of which might have little to do with nature, so look closely at the label. The "Certified Naturally Grown" seal indicates an official review process held to the same standards as USDA Organic.

Fair Trade

Fair trade standards are enforced by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and by Fair Trade USA in the United States. Fair trade products must be produced in accordance with the following guidelines: Workers must receive fair wages, safe and equitable working conditions, and the right to join trade unions; child or forced labor is completely prohibited; and crops must be grown, produced, and processed in a manner that supports social development, economic development, and environmental development.  Fair trade standards have been established for coffee, tea, cocoa, honey, bananas, juices, cotton, flowers, gold, rice, spices and herbs, sports balls, wine, composite products, fresh fruit, and sugar.

Animal Welfare Approved

Launched in 2006, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is a division of the nonprofit organization Animal Welfare Institute. Its standards cover the way participating farms raise their animals, including beef and dairy cattle, bison, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits. The basic premise of AWA's standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being. In order to qualify, animals must be raised on pastures or ranges. AWA only certifies family farms and charges no fees to participating farmers.

American Humane Certified

The American Humane Certified program (formerly the Free Farmed program) was created by the American Humane Association in 2000 to ensure that animals raised for dairy, poultry, beef, veal, goat, swine, turkey, and bison products are raised in a humane manner. These guidelines, created with input from animal science experts, ensure that livestock have access to clean and sufficient food and water, as well as a safe, healthy living environment, and that staff and managers are thoroughly trained to care for animals in a humane manner.

Non-GMO Project Verified

The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that provides the only third-party labeling program in North America for products grown without genetic engineering. This label verifies that a given product has been produced, from seed to shelf, according to rigorous best-practice standards for GMO avoidance.


The American Grassfed Association certifies beef, bison, dairy, lamb, and goat that is fed only on pasture; other requirements include that the animal is raised without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or confinement, and with high standards for animal welfare. The USDA also has a grassfed standard for ruminants, such as cows and goats, stating that these animals must be fed only grass and forage during the growing season. Other animals, such as chicken and pigs, can be pasture-raised (and USDA organic standards require at least some access to pasture), but there are currently no certification standards for nonruminant animals being grass fed or pastured.


The following labels depend on farmers and processors to report their own information supporting claims of compliance. These labels are not certified or tested by any third-party regulatory agency.


This label means that the farmer has chosen not to inject his or her cows with any artificial growth hormones, such as rBGH, a genetically engineered growth hormone. The label also is used for beef and chicken products when the animal is raised without growth hormones or steroids. The USDA, however, prohibits giving hormones to chickens, so the label doesn't mean much there. All chicken you buy will be hormone-free, whether it's labeled or not.

Raised Without Antibiotics

Chickens, pigs, and cattle raised on industrial farms are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics (the same drugs we rely on to fight bacterial infections in humans) to make them grow faster and compensate for overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. This label states that the meat or dairy was raised without the use of antibiotics.


There are no federal regulations regarding the labeling of food products containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That said, many companies have taken the initiative to label their products as GE-Free or Non-GMO. Since this is a voluntary and unregulated measure, the label can mean vastly different things coming from different companies, from 100 percent GE-Free products to trace levels of GMOs. Some good news: Companies often require certification or affidavits from farmers that the raw materials were not genetically modified in any way.


The following terms are not certified or tested by any third-party regulatory agency and do not imply a common set of standards. If you see one of these terms on a label, don't hesitate to ask a store or market employee what it means in the context of a specific food item.

All Natural

While labels and packaging frequently include it, this claim has no universal standard or definition.


Free-range poultry is defined as birds that spend part of their time outside—although that could be ten minutes per month or ten hours per day—and don't live in cages. The USDA does not provide a legal definition of free-range chicken eggs, and there are no standardized or regulated definitions for free-range beef or pork.


» If all this talk about food has made you curious about where yours comes from, visit HOMEGROWN's Find Good Food page and pinpoint healthy and local eats near you.

» For more meaty insights, give the Grassfed and Pasture-Raised Meat 101 (featuring the grassfed guru and HOMEGROWN member Shannon Hayes) a gander.

»For a look at how food labels and definitions evolve over time, watch this excellent video from the PBS series "The Lexicon of Sustainability," The Story of an Egg.

» You might also check out Farm Aid's Putting it into Practice column on decoding food labels.

» Feeling frisky? Download printable stickers and help raise awareness about what is and isn't GMO-free.


Got something to add? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling. You can always find more things to cook, preserve, make, craft, plant, grow, and ponder in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.

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Not sure if this is the best article but you get the point.  My wife and I feel really strong about this and we hope the government takes this step in protecting our food.


I believe this is a link to sign the petition to show your support of labeling GMO's.

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