You pick out a perfect organic apple or cut of grass-fed beef and notice that little USDA label staring back at you.
You know the USDA seal of approval is probably a good thing, but in reality you are not exactly sure what the label means.
We all deserve to know what those little stickers mean — and what they don’t mean, too. After all, what we put into our bodies matters. The more knowledgeable we become about how our food is manufactured and what is in it, the healthier we can be.
So here’s your guide to understanding the ins and outs of USDA labeling and what it means for your health and well-being.
What Is the USDA?
Before we can delve into the meaning behind those USDA labels, we’ve got to understand what the USDA is, why it was formed in the first place and what its role is in regulating the food we eat.
History of The USDA
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was formed back in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln signed legislation establishing it as a government entity supervising food, agriculture, natural resources and public policy. In Lincoln’s final message to congress two years later, he referred to the USDA as “The People’s Department.”
The USDA has been regulating and protecting the food we eat for decades and through many generations of American life. It’s currently composed of 29 federal agencies across 4,500 locations in the U.S. and abroad, and employs about 100,000 people.
USDA vs. FDA
It’s easy to feel confused about the difference between the USDA and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). After all, they are both U.S. governmental agencies that play key roles in regulating the foods we eat.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet on the differences between the two organizations:
- The USDA supports agriculture primarily, and oversees the production of meat, poultry, and eggs.
- The USDA also regulates organic labeling on our food.
- The FDA regulates the majority of the foods we eat, including packaged foods, dairy, food additives, alcohol and produce.
- The FDA also regulates drugs, dietary supplements, and is responsible for the majority of food labels on our foods, including the “nutrition facts label” you see on commercially manufactured foods.
The USDA’s Mission
The main goal of the USDA, according to its website, is to “provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.”
The USDA sees itself as a consumer advocate, seeking to share the latest scientific data on food safety and nutrition, ensuring that the public remains educated, healthy, and is able to consume foods safely. According the USDA’s strategic goals for 2018-2022, the aim going forward is to promote and preserve agricultural development, strengthen the agricultural economy and support sustainability.
What Does the USDA Nutrition Label Really Mean?
OK, so back to the most important part here. What do those USDA labels and stickers really mean?
Let’s focus on the USDA labels you typically see on foods you purchase at the grocery store. You are going to see two kinds of USDA labels on these foods:
- Labels pertaining to meat
- Labels describing the organic status of foods
Here’s what these two types of USDA labels mean:
1. USDA Meat, Poultry and Eggs Labels
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the main entity tasked with food labeling for meat, poultry and egg products. Specifically, the USDA regulates the following products:
- Meat and poultry, domestic and imported (not game meat)
- Products containing meat or poultry, including frozen foods, pizza and stews
- Products that include eggs (liquid, frozen, dried and pasteurized)
The USDA labels you most often see on meat, poultry and egg products have to do with inspection, and often contain language like “Inspected For Wholesomeness By The USDA” or “Packed Under Continuous Inspection Of The USDA.”
You may also see USDA labels pertaining to a meat product’s grade. These labels include USDA’s Prime, USDA Choice, and USDA Select. The USDA grades its beef in two ways: how tender, juicy and flavorful the meat is, and also how much usable lean meat can be found on the carcass.
Here’s a breakdown of the labels:
- The USDA Prime label means that the meat was produced from young cattle, and that the beef has plenty of marbling, which describes the white streaks of fat found on the meat.
- The USDA Choice label describes a more high-quality meat. This meat has less marbling than prime meat and is thought to be best for broiling, roasting and grilling.
- The USDA Select label denotes meat that is leaner than choice and prime meat. The meat is tender, but less juicy than the others.
2. USDA Organic Labels
Besides the meat-related USDA labels, the “organic” label is one of the only other labels strictly enforced by the USDA.
You’ve probably seen the USDA organic label many times. It’s that green and white label with the words “USDA” on top and “Organic” below.
What you might not know is what the label means. The USDA breaks it down on their website, describing exactly what requirements need to be met for a food to be labeled USDA organic.
Here are the four main criteria:
1. The food must be produced without the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge.
2. The food can’t contain certain substances and pesticides (click here for a complete list of banned items).
3. The food’s manufacturing must be overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized agent and follow all of the USDA organic regulations.
4. The food must be officially certified by the USDA.
What Do the Most Common Food Terms You See Mean?
These days, “natural” can describe many things, and when it comes to food labels, it isn’t always clear what a particular designation might mean. Again, that little white and green USDA organic label is the only label regulated by the USDA, and is really the only one worth considering if your aim is to eat organic food.
So what do the other “natural” and organic food labels mean, and does the USDA have any role in regulating these labels?
“Natural” or “All Natural”
These labels are basically one in the same in that the USDA does not have any official definition of “natural” or “all natural,” at least when it comes to fruits and vegetables. The USDA does allow the label “natural” in relation to meat products. In this case “natural” refers to meat and poultry products that don’t contain artificial ingredients or added color, and are minimally processed.
Labeling a product 100% organic is not just something a food manufacturing company can do on their own. Any iteration of the word “organic” on a label only holds credence if the USDA is involved.
According to the USDA, a product can be labeled 100% organic if all ingredients in the product are 100% USDA certified organic. Any processing equipment used must be organic, the label must include the USDA organic seal, and all organic ingredients must be named and clearly labeled.
“Made With” Organic
You often see labels indicating that some portion of the food you are about to eat has organic ingredients in it. But how do you know if these claims are real? While you can’t use a USDA organic label on a product unless it meets all of the USDA organic labeling standards, the USDA does allow “made with” organic labeling on products that meet certain criteria.
Products with the “made with” label must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, according to the USDA guidelines. These products must state the certifying agent on the information panel, and they are prohibited from using the USDA Organic seal anywhere on the product. All organic ingredients must be specifically identified.
Free Range, Free Roaming or Cage-Free
For a poultry product to be considered “free range” by the USDA, the manufacturer must demonstrate that the livestock were allowed outside access. However, this somewhat vague definition is all we have from the USDA, and there seems to be no means for certification, supervision or approval.
There used to be USDA regulated criteria for the label, “grass fed.” However, the USDA withdrew from the grass-fed livestock claim standard in 2016, which means that there are no longer any government regulated standards for the “grass fed” label.
When brands use the label “grass fed” on their products, they generally mean that the cows have been fed 100% grass, or close to that, and have been given free access to the outdoors. Again, it’s difficult to verify these claims because the USDA no longer oversees the “grass fed” label.
The USDA permits the use of hormones in beef and dairy cattle. Typically, if you see a “hormone-free” label on your beef or dairy product, it means that no additional hormones have been added.
According to the USDA website, pork and poultry products are never allowed to contain hormones in the first place, so a “hormone-free” or “no hormones added” label cannot be used. In terms of beef, a “no hormones administered” label may be allowed if the manufacturer submits sufficient evidence to the USDA showing that the products were raised without hormones.
However, if you are looking to be more certain that the meat that you are consuming is hormone-free, it’s best that you look for that white and green USDA organic label. Meat and dairy products with that label affixed to them are raised without the administration of antibiotics or hormones.
Bottom Line: Stick With USDA Labels
Still feeling confused about what all those pesky labels on your fruits, veggies, meats and dairy products actually mean? Your best bet is to simply pay attention to the certified USDA food labels on your food, and ignore the rest.
It can be easy to be fooled by labels such as “all natural” and “hormone-free.” While these labels may have some relevance in some cases, going by a third party label designation is usually not the smartest approach — especially when the labeling party is trying to sell you a particular product.
If your aim is to get trusted and reliable information about your food, USDA food labels are the way to go. These are truly the gold standard in food labeling.
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