The terms “organic,” “natural,” “non-GMO,” “cage free,” and “free-range” are all out there when you buy your food. Unfortunately, they are sometimes misused. So, the burden is on you, the consumer to be informed so you know what you are or aren’t buying.
Organic: In conversation, organic is often used interchangeably with USDA certified organic. They are not synonymous. If something is USDA certified organic it is organic but if something is organic, it is not necessarily UDSA certified organic. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) established the uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods that would be labeled organic. It also established the regulatory process by which these standards would be up held. Anyone can go to the USDA website and read the criteria for “organic” and create an “organic” garden in their backyard. What the USDA certified organic seal on a product tells you is that the farm that produced that product undergoes a rigorous yearly inspection to ensure it is in compliance with organic practices and that everything used to raise the product itself was organic and/or in compliance with organic regulations. In essence, labeling food is a legal process.
Natural: As defined by the USDA, a product that is labeled natural can have no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Its ingredients must only be minimally processed. The product can however contain antibiotics, growth hormones and other similar chemicals. The producer is not required to be certified and therefore no inspections are required. The producer does have to submit details of the production practices. When dealing with your local or backyard supplier, you again can run into the same problem as with the term organic. Small producers who employ the organic philosophy and practices in their production of food but have not been USDA certified may call their products natural since by law they cannot call them organic. These products may exceed the USDA standards for natural. Other small producers may truly be producing natural products in that not everything used to produce the product was organic, but they may have strict practices against the use of hormones and chemicals thus providing you with a much higher quality product than a product that is USDA labeled natural.
Non-GMO: Products labeled with the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal have gone through a verification process with the non-profit organization, The Non-GMO Project. The organization does not certifiying that the product is GMO free but rather that it is below a threshold. The product cannot contain more than 0.9% GMO. There are currently no legal standards as there are for organic and natural. Despite the fact that some products are labeled GMO free, there are no legal standards for this.
Cage Free Eggs: “Cage free” eggs are produced by hens that are uncaged inside barns. The hens are not required to have access to the outdoors. This environment does allow them to engage in many of their natural behaviors. There are no requirements on the type of feed (i.e. organic, non-GMO, etc) that they are given. There are no facility inspections.
Free-Range Eggs: There are no USDA standards for free-range egg production (though there are standards for some poultry products). These hens are uncaged in barns and do have access to the outdoors but there are no requirements for the amount or quality of this access. They can engage in natural behaviors. Again, there are no requirements for the type of feed they receive and forced molting is allowed. There are no inspections.
Now the next time you shop for food, you know what you are getting. Bon appetite!