What All the Food Labels Really Mean
Locally grown foods are more likely to have been bred for flavor and nutrition than durability and a long shelf life, says Emily Akins, outreach director for the Kansas City Food Circle, a cooperative that links residents with farmers that grow and raise organic and free-range food. An added benefit is getting to know the farmer and being able to ask the questions—and receive the answers—that are important to us.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that local food sales totaled $12 billion in 2014, up from $5 billion in 2008. They continue to grow.
Organic or Certified Organic
Consumers want to know the difference between organics and certified organics. Today’s number of U.S. certified organic operations has jumped nearly 300 percent since 2002 to more than 21,700.
Although a certified organic designation might be the preferred index of how foods are grown and raised, it is not always possible for certain foods in some climates. Sometimes there’s a tradeoff in buying organic foods in the carbon footprint of its transport to market.
According to the Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, in Tampa, Florida, “Organic refers to a specific method of growing and processing foods, and is defined as produce grown, packaged and stored without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or irradiation.”
To be considered certified organic under the Code of Federal Regulations 7 CFR Part 205, products must meet these standards:
• No harmful chemicals have been applied to the land for at least three years.
• Farmers and processors are inspected annually by a certifying agency.
• Farmers and processors must keep detailed records of practices.
• Farmers are required to maintain a written organic management plan.
When we buy local cheese, poultry or meat at the farmers’ market, we sometimes see a certified humane notice. One such producer is Baetje Farms, outside St. Louis, Missouri. Their highly regarded goat cheeses offer traceability via a lot number, so buyers can know exactly which milking the cheese came from.
In factory farming, which often involves penning or caging animals that never go outdoors, “certified humane” means that this producer meets Humane Farm Animal Care standards:
• Fed a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones.
• Provided proper shelter with resting areas and sufficient space.
• Animals have the ability to behave naturally.
Veronica Baetje says her farm’s goats receive organic mineral supplements and locally grown alfalfa hay in addition to pasture grass every day. She adds, “They are free to choose what they prefer to do, whether skip and run up a hill, lie under the shade of a tree, soak up some sunshine or play with their herd mates.”
At times, farmers’ markets will offer foraged foods from the wild or wild game. Sources are listed online at EatWild.com. “Few of us will go back to foraging in the wild, but we can learn to forage in our supermarkets, farmers’ markets and from local farmers to select the most nutritious and delicious foods available,” says founder Jo Robinson, in Vashon, Washington.
For example, Dave and Sue Whittlesey, at High Wire Ranch, in Hotchkiss, Colorado, raise bison (buffalo) and elk that they sell both through local stores and at the Aspen Saturday Market. The wild game is 100 percent pasture-fed, non-GMO (no genetically modified feed), gluten-free and not given hormones or any antibiotics unless the animal is sick.
The land, climate and growing season dictate the best natural farming practices for each area, often described along with their products on farm and farmers’ market websites.
Wisconsin’s Dane County Farmers’ Market, in Madison, provides detailed descriptions of farm products and agricultural practices so customers can make informed choices. Sometimes, the type of farm makes a difference. “We are intentionally human scale,” says Virginia Goeke, of Sylvan Meadows Farm, in Viroqua, Wisconsin. “We choose to husband our land to promote harmony and synergy. We are creating a sustainable farm ecosystem where herbal meadows, prairies, heirloom gardens, orchards, woodlands, and rare breeds of livestock and wildlife flourish.”
Sometimes, we’d just like someone else to do the food curating for us. The Kansas City Food Circle requires member farmers to take a pledge to follow certain agricultural practices. “When you buy food from our members, you can rely on the co-op’s pledge that it’s been certified naturally grown or that the farmer has USDA Organic certification,” says Akins.
Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, the joint effort of 100 small-scale family farms providing fresh, organic, seasonal produce, in Leola, Pennsylvania, gives similar assurances.
The USDA reports that 160,000 farmers nationwide are currently selling to their local markets via farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture organizations, restaurants, groceries and institutions, generating health, social, economic and environmental benefits for local communities. It keeps growing because we keep asking questions.
Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com.
Healthy Foods Lexicon
Foraged—Native foods gathered from the wild, rather than cultivated. Examples: wild mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, mulberries, native pecans, black walnuts and native persimmons.
Free range—Poultry raised outdoors where they are free to range over natural vegetation.
Grass-fed—Beef or milk cows fed on grass. The benefit is leaner, better-flavored meat and more omega-3s, plus fuller flavors in milk, butter and other dairy products.
Heirloom—Older, non-hybrid varieties of produce, including fruit trees, herbs and vegetables.
Heritage breeds—Ancestral breeds of poultry and livestock that often take longer to reach market weight, but have more flavor.
Local—Grown or raised within a three-hour driving radius of the consumer’s purchase site.
Pastured—Livestock raised on pastures instead of factory farms.
Traceability—Precise tracking by a farmer that informs the consumer of which chicken hatched a specific clutch of eggs, which farm grew a cantaloupe and which mill boiled down and bottled the sorghum syrup.
Wild-caught—Fish that live and are caught in open lakes, streams or oceans.
For more current agricultural, market and trade terms, visit LexiconOfSustainability.com.