Are you paying more for certain food labels? Who can blame you! With the rise of labels and wanting to make more conscious efforts of mindful eating, we all want what’s best for ourselves and our family’s health.
As commercial-scale farmers, I think we’ve heard it all. From GMOs to pesticides, factory farming and animal welfare, what on Earth is going on with the food supply?
It’s hard for us as farmers to be part of the conversation sometimes. We make up less than 2 percent of the population; we live in tiny towns in rural America; and our voices are so easily drowned out by media misinformation, fearmongering, activist groups, and food companies who will stop at nothing to sell a product. So while we are being labeled to death, (organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, free range, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, no hormones, no this or that, unicorn blessed, etc. etc. … it’s enough to make your head spin!) how many of these food labels actually hold merit?
From the perspective of a commercial farmer and as someone who writes about these topics regularly, here are some food labels to watch out for if you’d like to save money instantly on your grocery bill.
#1: “No Added Hormones and Steroids*” on chicken packages
Yes, you read that right: There is an asterisk after that sentence every time it’s on a package of pork or poultry products. Why? Because it doesn’t even exist! If you read the label very carefully, read the fine print: *Federal law strictly prohibits the use of hormones in poultry. It’s not a thing. Chickens are never “pumped full” of hormones or antibiotics. Learn more here from the University of Georgia poultry research center as to why they’re never given hormones. Which leads to the next point:
Did you know that all meat and dairy products are free from antibiotics? Yes it’s true! As farmers, if we need to administer medicine, there is a withdrawal time before that animal can legally go to market to ensure the drug residues are out of their system. Not only that, but as of 2017, FDA regulations make it to where a vast majority of medicine is no longer allowed unless we have a prescription from our veterinarian. Antibiotics used to be more prevalent, but thanks to improvements in things such as housing, biosecurity, ventilation, and vaccines, a vast majority of livestock are raised with “no antibiotics, ever.” Farmers occasionally treat animals that are sick, and using more medicine than necessary is a waste of time and money. No need to pay more for labels that are meaningless!
It’s true that farmers jump through a ton of hoops to become certified organic, however that label isn’t always as pure as the Stonyfields and some other food corporations would like us to believe. Organic does not mean free from pesticides or chemicals. In fact, sometimes organic farms use more pesticides than their non-organic farm counterparts, particularly in the fruit and veggie world. Does that make it scary? Absolutely not! Pesticide residues, if present, are found in parts per billion or parts per trillion, and they’re well below accepted scientific safety levels. You’d need to eat hundreds or thousands of servings in a single sitting in order to affect you. Farmers today use less chemicals than in decades past and are very well regulated in terms of safety — the dose makes the poison. Always wash your produce, too! For more info, check out www.safefruitsandveggies.com.
#4: Cage free
Did you know that 98 percent of U.S. farms are actually family farms? It’s one of the reason the term “factory farm” drives us crazy! There is a ton of misinformation out there when it comes to animal welfare, and cage-free is a good example of this. Whether larger farms have labels like organic, free-range, or cage-free, the way they’re raised in barns isn’t that much different. Especially if they’re in cold climates where they can’t be reared outdoors due to cold, ice, snow, disease, and predator problems.
And “cage-free” on a larger scale is generally not as good for the chicken’s well being.
Feather plucking, injury, food safety, etc. can all play a role. Cages are there for a reason, which prevents these issues, and the farms can do a better job monitoring things like feed, health, nutrition, and cleanliness. Not only that, but the latest cage systems for chickens are bigger with more room to move about, and can include nesting boxes, perches, and scratching posts that further improve welfare. These enriched cages are scientifically proven to be the best housing system and approved by some of the best animal welfare experts in the world, including Dr. Temple Grandin from Colorado State. Remember, we’re talking large scale here and not your neighbor’s backyard flock. If you buy from the farmer direct, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting, but if you choose to buy the cheapest eggs in the store, rest assured you’re not making a bad decision either. Farming is certainly a business, and the better we treat animals, the better they treat us. Happy and healthy = the best product. That’s common sense and Business 101!
#5: Grass Fed
Unless you’re buying direct from your local farmer/market and can talk with grower, take this label with a grain of salt. The label “grass-fed” is not well regulated. We raise cattle in Iowa, and although the grass-fed label conjures up pretty images of cows on sunny days with grass pasture, the reality is much different. We deal with drought, flood, ice, and snow; it’s not that simple. Our cattle can’t eat only grass in winter … they get supplemented hay (a grass) and corn. Agronomically speaking, corn is “technically” a type of a grass, and even if cattle are fed grains, they may still be able to carry the “grass fed” label even if they’re fed more than just grasses.
#6: “Non GMO”
“Fear” is the new “sex” when it comes to selling something, and what exactly is a GMO? Technically, it’s crops that have been bred through specific breeding methods like cisgenic and transgenic, but everything we eat has been modified in some way. Organic and non-GMO crops may also be bred in a laboratory, and there are only 10 crops in the U.S. that are even widely considered a GMO. (Apple, alfalfa hay, cotton, canola, soy, corn, summer squash, papaya, potato, and sugar beet.) Often times, food labeled “non-GMO” do not even have GMO counterparts! “Organic, natural, and non-GMO” are food labels worth hundreds of billions of dollars and oftentimes take advantage of the fact that people don’t really understand farming. Fear-based misinformation through marketing is usually funded by the very same corporations trying to sell you something. (i.e. GMOs are bad! Go Organic! Well … that was an easy sell.) It sells, but you can outsmart it and save a little money by avoiding unnecessary labels like “non-GMO” grapes. (Hint: There’s no such thing as GMO grapes)
So there you have it. I know some of this information may come as a huge shock! But it’s really important to connect with real industry farm experts like veterinarians, commercial scale farmers, agronomists, and university researchers. Thanks to social media, we’re just a click away to get your questions answered and the people who grow your food, even large scale, are real family farmers who care. Seek them out, and buy what you’re most comfortable with. Flavor, quality, local? But if you choose to buy what’s the lowest cost on the shelf, rest assured you’re still most likely getting a great product.
To spin off the Geico commercial slogan, “Fifteen minutes with a farmer could save you 15 percent or more on your grocery bill!”
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.