Getting Your Curd’s Worth: How to Interpret Food Labels

Confused about the difference between grassfed and organic dairy? Read on. Photo credit: Civil Eats


Grocery shopping in the 21st century is about so much more than procuring food; it’s increasingly a political act. Even if you’re not adhering to any particular diet (gluten-free, grassfed, Paleo, et al), your choices have an impact locally, nationally or globally. When you actually care about the provenance of your ingredients, a trip to the store becomes even more fraught with confusion.

Nourishment is a basic human need, and while it’s important to make good choices that have a positive effect on our health, animal and farmworker welfare and the environment, it shouldn’t result in angst. The key is to be an informed consumer, and just do the best you can to offset negative consequences. You also have to pick your battles, based on what’s important to you (or your dietary needs).

One of the biggest frustrations for consumers is demystifying food labels. To help make your food purchases- at the store, farmers market or online- less confusing, we’ve compiled a list of the most commonly-used terms. For the purposes of this post, we’re focusing on dairy and meat production/products. Here’s to making more informed, empowered food choices.

Milking time at a farmstead dairy in California. Photo credit: Redwood Hill

Farmstead: With regard to cheese, the American Cheese Society (ACS) definition refers to product “made with milk from the farmer’s own herd or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised. Milk used in the production of farmstead cheese may not be obtained from any outside source.”

Haystack Mountain started as a farmstead operation in 1989; after founder Jim Schott retired and sold his dairy goats, we began sourcing our goat’s milk from our partner dairy at Skyline Correctional Center in Cañon City, Colorado; we also purchase supplementary milk from Lukens Farms– a small, sustainable family farm in Weld County; our cow’s milk comes from family-owned and -operated Longmont Dairy (see Organic heading below for herd management details).

Artisanal: The ACS defines artisan or artisanal cheese as one that is “produced by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art and thus using as little mechanization as possible in production of the cheese,” regardless of milk type. “Artisan” is also our preferred term at Haystack Mountain with regard to our cheesemaking practices.

We refer to our cheeses as artisanal, due to our production methods. Photo credit: Loco Belly

Pasture-raised: This term has no legal definition with regard to livestock or poultry, and isn’t a guarantee of humane animal husbandry.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled®: Look for this label, which ensures “the humane treatment of farm animals from birth through slaughter,” in accordance with consumer demand for more ethical farming practices. To be Certified Humane®, ranchers must ensure that animals have “ample space, shelter, gentle handling to reduce stress, and a “healthy diet of quality feed, without added antibiotics or hormones.” Cages, crates, and tie-stalls are prohibited, and animals must be allowed to engage in natural behaviors; regulations are overseen and implemented by a national non-profit.

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): With regard to humane livestock production, AWA “audits, certifies, and supports independent family farmers raising their animals according to the highest animal welfare standards.” Livestock must be permitted to engage in natural behaviors, “be in a state of physical and psychological well-being,” and raised on pasture or range. This voluntary program doesn’t charge fees to participating farmers, making it sustainable in more ways than one. Considered the gold standard in livestock management certification.

Humane livestock management allows for natural behaviors, like these pigs rooting in pasture. Photo credit: ACES

Grassfed: This USDA-regulated term denotes that cattle and other ruminants (cud-chewing mammals including bison, sheep, and goats), may have their predominantly pasture-based diet supplemented with grain. Use of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides (on pasture) are also allowed. Note that “Grass-finished” is an unregulated claim.

AGA-Certified Grassfed (AGA): The American Grassfed Association has applied a third-party audit system to create a label that they say “takes USDA standards to a higher level.” Ruminants must be born and raised in the U.S., fed nothing but pasture forage from weaning to slaughter, free of hormones and antibiotics, allowed to engage in natural behaviors and raised free of confinement (including feedlots).

AGA-Certified Dairy: This newly-approved term ensures the same husbandry methods as above, as well as “the healthy and humane treatment of dairy animals, to meet consumer expectations about grassfed dairy products and to be economically feasible for small- and medium-size dairy farmers.

A beef cattle feedlot. Photo credit: Livestock Tracker

Organic: According to the USDA, meat labeled “organic” may not contain hormones or antibiotics and livestock must be fed a diet of 100-percent organic feed and forage. This doesn’t, however, ensure animals are raised on pasture or in a pen- or cage-free environment or permitted to graze- yet paradoxically, the rule asserts that livestock must be raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors. Organic dairy products must come from livestock that have “been under continuous organic management for at least one year prior to the production of the milk or milk products.”

Non-GMO/GMO-free: There’s really no way to guarantee this term with regard to animal feed or most commodity crops grown for human consumption, thanks to something called “pollen drift.” The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit that “provides the only third-party labeling program in North America for products grown without using genetic engineering. They verify that the process products go through, from seed to shelf, are produced according to their rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance.” Key word: Avoidance.

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