What’s in a Label?

By Lorna Carlisle

When you’re shopping, there can be an overwhelming amount of information (and disinformation) on the product label. Chickens used to spend their entire life in a cage with no room to stretch and move about. They were treated as “egg laying machines” and not as sentient beings. I have raised chickens most of my life and love to watch them in their pursuit of bugs, digging, scratching, running, or enjoying a nice “dirt bath.” Many states started banning the practice of chickens in cages, hence the label, “cage-free.” That still doesn’t guarantee that a chicken has had an enjoyable life roaming the fields. 

Another label is “free range.” This means the chicken hasn’t been stuck in a cage popping out eggs. It does not always mean that the hen is outside on grass or poking around in the dirt. As homeowners, many people want their chickens to be totally free range but even this can present problems. Hawks, weasels, coyotes or other predators appreciate free range chickens too. A nice compromise is a fenced area to protect the girls but keep out the animals looking for a free meal! 

You might also see “antibiotic free.” Many times, if animals are crowded together in unhealthy environments, the farmer uses antibiotics to prevent illnesses. Animals raised on pasture should not need this kind of treatment, unless they actually get sick. It also seems very unnatural for cows to spend their days in the barn with no grass under their feet or nose. Hence, the label “grass fed.”

Organic generally means either the animals (such as hens, cows or goats) have been fed
organic grains. Vegetables that are organic do not mean chemical free. There are many pesticides that are organic but can still cause problems in nature. Bees can be harmed unless the farmer uses extreme caution and applies the pesticide or herbicide late in the day or early in the morning before the bees become active. 

Do we trust that some organic vegetable from a country far from the United States is truly organic? Who inspected the farm? How was the product handled during the long transport? If you can buy as locally as possible and know the farmer, you can feel a lot more confidence in what you’re getting.

Another issue that has caused a flap in the organic world is: “Can it be considered organic, if it wasn’t grown in soil?”. Hydroponic growers say yes. The growers have to pump chemicals/nutrients into the water for the plants. I’ll leave that to the experts, but my feeling is strongly in support of soil. 

Some labels are rather gimmicky like “Naturally Raised or Grown.” What the heck does that mean? Almost nothing. A seed can be an F1 hybrid, but it basically is taking two plants of the same kind and breeding them and selecting for best traits. 

GMO (genetically modified organism) is a totally different process. As an example, they have “engineered” corn so that it is “RoundUp Ready”. This allows a farmer to spray his cornfields
with glyphosate to kill the weeds but not kill the corn plant. Another “modification” adds BT (bacillus thuringiensis) that will kill insects that feed on the plant. Color me surprised, but almost immediately the insects started to exhibit resistance to the BT. It’s good to read labels but my
biggest suggestions are: know your farmer, shop at trusted sources, and ask lots of questions.