How often do you, as a consumer, pay attention to the variety of nutrient content claims and labels on your food packages? It seems like there are more now than ever before. Food manufacturers recognize consumer interest in on-farm practices, production and processing methods and they use it to help market their products. Some producers will put multiple claims on their product even though one might do the job.
A recent University of Illinois study ranked which production attributes were most important to buyers when purchasing beef, chicken, milk and eggs. The tops 3 attributes overall are bold.
- Animals were not administered growth hormones.
- Genetically modified organisms were not used in the production of this product (non-GMO).
- Animals were humanely raised.
- Animals were not administered antibiotics.
- Animals were raised in a free-range (or cage-free) environment.
- Animals were grass-fed (or raised on a vegetarian diet).
- The product is certified organic.
A surprising finding was that certified organic was ranked lowest in importance for consumers. The organic certification for meat already includes several of these other production attributes such as "living conditions accommodating natural behaviors (ability to graze on pasture), being fed 100% organic feed and forage, as well as the absence of antibiotics and hormones" so you would think it would be higher on the list.
Producers recognize that consumers may be more knowledgeable about organic produce and not so much about organic meat and animal production methods which is why they will list "no added antibiotics and growth hormones" in addition to the organic stamp. This will ensure consumers can easily find what they're looking for.
Here is another term that is often misinterpreted. Let's review what "cage-free" refers to in poultry production.
Cage-free: Most cage-free hens are raised indoors in a multi-level aviary housing system that allows them to move freely within the barn. Cage-free does not mean "free-range". Only in organic production systems are they required to have outdoor access.
However, there are trade-offs in each housing system. In a study conducted by the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply, hen mortality rate and breastbone injuries were higher in cage-free systems than in conventional systems. Production costs in the Midwest are also higher which is why your "cage-free" carton is typically more expensive.
So, what is the best choice? That is for you to decide. For more information on food labeling, refer to the USDA website or call your local Extension office. Becoming more familiar with claims and their definitions will save you time at the grocery store and increase your confidence when making food purchases.
- Ellison, B., Brooks, K. & Mieno, T. Agric Hum Values (2017). doi:10.1007/s10460-017-9777-9
- Iowa Farm Bureau
Today's post was written by Kristin Bogdonas, MPH. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Mercer, Henry, Rock Island and Stark Counties.