“Natural.” “Free Range.” “Cage-free” – What do they mean?


Shopping for organically grown foods can be confusing because of all the different terms and jargon that companies use to market their foods. Some of the claims aren’t verified by any one at all. Here’s a list of definitions and terms that we hope will help you be a smarter shopper!


“Natural” for non-meat products (FDA ): In 1989, the FDA issued a definition for “natural,” stating that it meant “nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”


“Natural” for meat products (USDA FSIS ): Can’t contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient. In addition, the product could only be minimally processed (FSIS, 2006). Under this ruling, the definition of minimally processed included: a) traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or make it safe for human consumption, or b) physical processes that do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or that only separate a whole, intact food into component parts, e.g., grinding meat, separating eggs into albumen and yolk, and pressing fruits to produce juices.


“Naturally Raised” (USDA AMS): “Naturally raised” on livestock and meat derived from livestock would mean that “(1) no growth promotants (hormones) were administered to the animals; (2) no antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered to the animal; and (3) no animal by-products were fed to the animals” (Agricultural Marketing Service, 2009).


Free-Range Eggs: There are no legal standards in “free-range” egg production. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed.
Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing. Free-Range Chicken: The USDA allows for any chicken raised with access to the outdoors to be labeled “free-range”. Nowhere does it state that the chickens have to actually go outdoors; ACCESS is the only legal binding verbiage of that rule. They may still be raised in the same overpopulated poultry house type production and be labeled “free-range”. Certified  organic chickens may also be raised like this.


Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.


Click here for more label definitions related to meat products to help you become a more educated shopper.