by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, Value Added Local Foods Program, Lincoln Land Community College
Eating a meal used to mean harvesting carrots and potatoes and butchering a cow in the backyard. You knew how the produce was grown, and took care of the animals in order to keep food on the table. Now the food we buy may be grown on the other side of the world with farmers, packers, processors, transporters, marketers and distributors that we never see, using practices we never knowingly agreed to. As we strive to reconnect with our food in order to take back ownership of our health and the planet’s well-being, I’ve provided some clarification for food labels established to help eaters better choose what they want their community to look like.
Organic: When a grower or processor is “certified organic,” a USDA accredited public or private organization has verified that the business meets or exceeds the standards set forth in the USDA Organic Rule. Certification is optional for operations selling less than $5,000 of organic product annually. Anyone using the term organic in their marketing must be certified. All kinds of agricultural products are produced organically including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibers such as cotton, flowers and processed food products. The USDA organic regulations describe organic agriculture as the application of a set of cultural, biological and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering.
Any farmer using the term organic in their marketing must be certified. Organic certification can be cost prohibitive for small farmers due to the certification expense and time consuming record-keeping practices that are required. Therefore some farmers may follow the organic standards without applying for certification.
Organic certification standards have lessened in the years since they were first implemented in 2002, and some of the standards operate more as guidelines. I worked on a certified organic farm that was able to buy non-organic flower seeds by demonstrating that it would be cost prohibitive to purchase organic seeds. In addition, there have been lawsuits against large organic farms for their animal welfare practices. Some organic dairy farms, for example, raise cows in large confinement facilities but are able to meet the bare minimum requirements for organic certification. The “Know Your Food Know Your Farmer” campaign really says it best for truly understanding what is in your food, how it was grown and who is affected by the farmer’s practices.
Sustainable: There are no legal definitions for sustainable foods. The essence of the term intends practices that keep the environment healthy and food production economically and socially viable, but claims can be made for otherwise. The cost barrier to organic certification coupled with the belief of many farmers that the organic standards do not adequately safeguard natural resources or ensure the well-being of animals, started the trend toward identifying food as sustainably grown.
Natural: Neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the USDA has rules or regulations for products labeled “natural.” Natural foods are assumed to be minimally processed and without hormones, antibiotics or artificial flavors. The FDA states the difficulty in defining a food product as “natural” due to the processing involved and its indirect relationship from the earth. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. A product labeled natural may contain antibiotics, growth hormones and other similar chemicals. (The FDA is accepting comments on this topic now until Feb. 10, 2016.)
Free-range: The USDA states that animals must have access to the outdoors. There are no definitions as to how much access they are given or when they can access the outdoors. The access can mean a small, unappealing space that would be difficult for the animal to reach.
Cage-free: USDA food labeling regulation requires that the producer be able to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outside and not contained, but applications and certification are not required. There are no requirements for the number of animals per square foot, and the animals can be contained in a confined indoor space.
Grassfed: USDA Certified Grassfed Beef marketing claim standard requires that animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The forage can be grazed or consumed as hay or other stored forage. Animals certified under this program cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. The USDA definition defines what grassfed animals can and cannot be fed. However, it does not address other issues such as the use of hormones and antibiotics, confinement of animals and environmental stewardship. Therefore, in order to distinguish products that meet more stringent practices, Food Alliance and American Grassfed Association (AGA) created certifications to fill the gaps in the USDA certification. AGA’s standards concentrate on four areas of animal production including 1) diet — animals can only be fed grass and forage from weaning until harvest, 2) confinement — animals must be raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots, 3) antibiotics and hormones — none can be used throughout the life of the animal, and 4) origin — all animals must be born and raised on American family farms.
Local: Commonly, “local food” refers to food produced near the consumer within a certain number of miles or within a state’s border. There is no universally agreed-upon definition for the geographic component of what “local” or “regional” means, leaving retailers and consumers to decide what local and regional food means to them. The ability to sell or eat local depends on the existing production of a specific area.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.