You want to buy healthier meat and dairy products that have lower environmental impact. Checking the labels, you\’re confronted with a barrage of terms: grass fed, natural, and organic.
You want to buy healthier meat and dairy products that have lower environmental impact. Checking the labels, you’re confronted with a barrage of terms: grass fed, natural, and organic.
Confused? You’re not alone. To bolster the wholesome look of their food, producers have devised terms that sound healthy, humane, and eco-friendly. But are they?
Home, Home on the Range
The terms “grass fed,” “free range,” and “free stall” are all unregulated and refer to animal husbandry practices that are used by both organic and traditional farmers.
Some grass fed animals eat grass–not grain. Most eat grass from weaning; others are grass finished, meaning they forage only at the end of their lives. A grass diet generally produces healthier meat, with higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Free-range animals can move outside the barn, instead of being penned or caged. For nonorganic farmers, free range is a more humane treatment that reduces illness among the animals, thereby decreasing the need for antibiotics.
Free-stall dairy cows can move only between stalls, feeding, and watering areas. Whether they are allowed outside, kept in small paddocks, or given greater freedom depends on the farm.
Other Labelling Terms
Another unregulated word that sounds good is “natural.” It is increasingly found on agricultural product labels. For some meat and dairy producers, natural is the same as organic except for the certification. For others, it’s a marketing tool used to gain a larger share of the health food market. When you see the word “natural,” read the fine print.
Products marked “raised without pesticides,” without an accompanying organic label, may indeed be chemical pesticide-free but are not government inspected. Remember: organic farmers are allowed to use natural pesticides.
“Locally raised” is a term gaining importance. By choosing to buy locally rather than globally, you reduce the amount of fuel used for transport and cut down on pollution. How “local” is local? That’s open for discussion. You can start the local trend yourself by shopping at farmers’ markets and visiting nearby farms to take advantage of their farm-gate sales.
“Certified organic” is the only term with legal standing. Currently, only Quebec and British Columbia (BC Certified Organic logo) have provincial standards, regulations, and accreditation. Other provinces have voluntary standards.
Canadian organic food products sold interprovincially or internationally come under federal laws. At the national level, certified organic producers must meet the Canadian General Standards Board’s National Organic Standards, which regulate animal husbandry practices. They also cover packaging, labelling, storage, and distribution of organic food products.
More help is at hand. To protect consumers against false organic claims, the federal government enacted new Organic Products Regulations in December 2006, which will be phased in over two years. By 2009, products under federal jurisdiction that use the word “organic” or display the Canada Organic logo–a maple leaf behind rolling hills–will have to be certified by a federally accredited certification body.
The new certified organic logos make it easier for consumers to recognize organic products. However, many terms are still unregulated. To learn more about what you’re eating, check the producer’s websites, question health store staff, and visit local farms.
An informed consumer is a healthy consumer.