The Environment is What You Eat: Misleading Ecolabels like Natural, Free Range and Cruelty Free


Entering a grocery store for a socially and environmentally minded person can be quite a stressful and trying experience. Should you buy that organic, free-range, cage-free, grass-fed, non-GMO, natural, fair-trade beef? How do you know if those chickens really are free to roam in bucolic pastures? How often are the organic farms audited? How do you know if the apple from New Zealand produced less fossil fuels compared to the local one? When the seemingly more ethical products cost up to twice as much as conventional ones, we end up staring at the shelves in a daze with recycle symbols and cheery looking Peruvian coffee growers circling our heads.

According to Organic Consumers, “Even those labels that carry the name of some of the country’s largest and most respected environmental organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense, are being called into question by farmers and consumer groups.” Many times food companies merely pay conservation organizations to use their logos, and there are no standards or oversight. Organic Consumers claims General Mills paid $115,000 to the Nature Conservancy to use its oak-leaf logo on boxes of Nature Valley granola bars. The logo merely signifies General Mills’ payment to the Nature Conservancy.

Consumer Reports lists 149 different Ecolabels. The majority of these are not meaningful at all, or are only somewhat meaningful. If you see a product that says it is Free-Range, Green, Antibiotic Free, Hormone Free, 100% Vegan, Hypoallergenic, Natural, Non-Toxic, Environmentally Safe, No Animal Testing, Animal Care Certified or Cruelty Free, it may be completely false — there is absolutely no oversight on these claims.

281x144_eggs_animal_care_certified2.jpgIn fact, in April 2006, due to pressure from the nonprofit organization Compassion over Killing, the Better Business Bureau announced the Animal Care Certified logo was so deceptive it could no longer be stamped on egg cartons. However, as of February 2008, you could still find this label on egg-cartons around the country.

Free-range only applies to poultry not eggs, and the USDA considers five minutes of open-air access adequate to stamp free-range on a poultry product. Cage-free just means the hens are not confined in cages, it could still mean they live in restricted quarters. The majority of egg-laying hens are kept in windowless buildings, packed up to five-at-a-time into 12 by 18 inch cages, making it impossible for them to stretch their wings. Organic eggs do have humane requirements that are supposedly regulated, but there are concerns about lax enforcement. Furthermore, forced molting through starvation is permitted under organic standards.

green-seal.gifThe only labels that are completely valid are Certified Organic, Fair-Trade, Bird Friendly, Certified Biodegradable, Food Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, and various other organic-specific labels. Valid labels identifying products in which animals are treated humanely include Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Approved and the Leaping Bunny Logo. Green Seal also has complete oversight for cleaning products, skin care products and wood. All labels created by US states and counties are also highly meaningful.

The American Humane Certified label (formerly Free Farmed) ensures animals are: “Free to live and grow in a humane environment under conditions and care that limit stress.” The nonprofit watchdog group Consumers Union deemed it a “highly meaningful label that indicates that meat, dairy and egg products came from animals that were treated humanely.”

humane.jpgHowever, currently the vast majority of livestock don’t fall under any of these humane-labeling programs. So if you really want to make sure you buy humane products it’s a good idea to buy from farmers markets so you can talk directly to those who raise the animals. If you want to be entirely sure, ask to take a tour of their farms.

You may be wondering how these companies can get away with printing meaningless labels on their products. The Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) Executive Director, Richard Wood said, “If consumers are paying more for eggs, at the very least they should be getting what they thought they paid for. Labels help consumers make purchasing decisions and thus it’s absolutely essential that these labels are truthful.”

Perhaps the government is not regulating these labels because the agriculture lobby has such a powerful influence on government policy. Maybe these food companies see the potential profit in being able to use meaningless labels on their products without having to spend any more time or money on it. Meanwhile well-intentioned people who have faith the FDA would regulate these claims are duped into buying more expensive products.

Take action by writing to your legislators about labeling foods correctly and eggs in particular. Also, talk to and write the food companies and grocery stores. Ask them under what conditions their meats/eggs were produced, and demand they use valid labels or you won’t buy their products. If there are no humanely produced products, request they carry the Humane Certified labeled products.

Image credits: American Humane, Rose Acre Farms, The Humane Society

  1. Green Global Travel

    It really can be confusing to go to the store and try to buy something organic, cruelty-free and all of the above in that ever growing list. Often seems like there’s a catch! I suppose the best thing is to research the company of the product you like and go from there or to shop at the farmer’s market and ask the farmer yourself!

  2. Green Global Travel

    It really can be confusing to go to the store and try to buy something organic, cruelty-free and all of the above in that ever growing list. Often seems like there’s a catch! I suppose the best thing is to research the company of the product you like and go from there or to shop at the farmer’s market and ask the farmer yourself!

  3. Janel Sterbentz

    A friend of mine questioned whether asking the farmer at the farmers market is useful since they may not tell the entire truth. But I think asking shows the seller that their customers care about these issues. However, the only way to know for sure is by visiting the farm. Maybe we could start up an “Open Farms” day similar to artists open studios.

  4. millie

    thanks, great article! and remember, there’s always the option of simply not buying animal products at all. makes things like this much simpler 😉

  5. robin

    Thanks for this – it was very informative. My local farmer’s market opened today and I saw that the local eggs were about 35 cents more than the cage free/all natural … eggs I buy at the supermarket chain. Since I’m trying to get the most for my environmental buck, I thought I’d keep buying the eggs at the grocery store and buy other things from the farmer’s market. But now I intend to ask the local egg seller about the conditions on their farm, and if I like what I hear, I’ll pay the extra .35.

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