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Official certification: Food labels follow a path to get stamped organic

UPDATED: Sat., Aug. 14, 2021

Organic dairy farmer John Van Wieringen does more paperwork these days to confirm organic practices, but he sees the upside. Since switching from traditional operations to organic in 2012, he said his 65 cows are healthier.

Each year, the Washington state Department of Agriculture verifies Van Wieringen is using “USDA Organic” applications under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules for food production. It includes that the animals’ living conditions meet natural behaviors such as grazing on pastures free of fertilizers or pesticides. They eat 100% grass or organic feed and aren’t given antibiotics or hormones.

“Milking organic is almost easier in a sense because when I milked conventional, I milked to get as much production as I could,” said Van Wieringen, who is based in Enumclaw, Washington. The farm’s milk goes into Organic Valley cartons. He’s a farmer-owner in the Wisconsin-based farm cooperative.

“Before, I was constantly pushing the cows, putting as much feed into them as I could to get as much milk that I could,” he said. “Milking organic is absolutely the flip-flop of that. I feed for health to keep the cows healthy. Whatever the cows give me for milk is what I get. It’s just much easier on me, on my cows and on my property, for that matter, because I’m not using any pesticides for weeds or commercial fertilizers.”

Beyond USDA organic, some food products today carry a maze of labels touting “natural” in various ways. The seals include Certified Grass-Fed, Free to Forage, Non-GMO, Certified Humane Raised and Handled Global Food Safety Initiative, Global Animal Partnership and Good Agricultural Practices USDA Harmonized Food Safety.

If there’s label confusion, look first for that USDA Organic seal, said Meenakshi Trehan, who does brand marketing for Organic Valley. That label carries high standards that often overlap other focuses for natural food production, and it requires a third-party verification, she said.

However, Trehan said consumer demand is driving the use of two other labels: Certified Grass-Fed and Free to Forage. Additional seals tend to be under initiatives or nonprofits working to raise the quality of natural foods, she said.

“I talk a lot to confused consumers or to the moms who want to feel confident picking up the products,” Trehan said. “They’re saying, ‘Make it easy for me.’ To know that some of these labels are regulated and administered by third parties can be helpful.”

What does Free to Forage on eggs mean? “To us, it means access to fresh air, sunshine and organic pasture free of pesticides, basically,” she said, but that free range for eggs isn’t regulated, so it might mean different things across producers. “There is a little room for confusion. On the other side, we have the 100% Grass-Fed seal, and it is administered by a third party.”

The coop gets its Grass-Fed Organic Dairy seal via a third party called the Organic Plus Trust Inc. The USDA organic seal also requires that for livestock, those animals must graze in pasture at least 120 days per year. Van Wieringen said his dairy cows are out to pasture closer to 180 days annually and indoors solely for winter.

“Dependent on the weather, they’ll go out anywhere from the third week in March to the third week of October,” he said. “Some years, I could be knocking on the door of 200 days that they’ll be off concrete out in the pasture.”

Consumers’ awareness has grown because major retailers such as Costco are carrying more USDA organic-labeled products, Trehan said. But some seals aren’t widely known.

Trehan said other labels, such as Non-GMO for genetically modified organism, are good to know for mission-driven verification. The work is “raising the game with what food should be,” she said. “It’s about people, animals and the planet, that you’re doing right by everything and producing food that is healthy and ethically made.”

Here are a few expanded food label definitions:

USDA Organic: The agency offers an online ”Organic 101” and says organic certification requires that farmers document their processes and get inspected every year. Organic on-site inspections include but aren’t limited to seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed and pest management, water systems, inputs, contamination and commingling risks and prevention and record-keeping.

“Tracing organic products from start to finish is part of the USDA organic promise,” the USDA says. “As with all organic foods, none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which the organic standards expressly prohibits.”

Non-GMO: A GMO is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology, says the Non-GMO project. “The Non-GMO Project works diligently to provide the most accurate, up-to-date standards for non-GMO verification.” The Non-GMO Project seal means a product has completed a comprehensive third-party verification.

Certified Grass-Fed: The American Grassfed Association also offers certification, third-party verified, and “guarantees that when consumers buy grass-fed beef with the AGA logo, they are ensured it was born, raised and processed in the USA, that the animals were treated humanely and that they were grazed regeneratively.” The USDA says, “Grass (Forage) Fed means that grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.”

Free-Range or Cage-Free: The USDA wrote a blog on this topic while noting consumer confusion: “To provide additional assurance to their customers of the validity of marketing claims, shell egg producers often enlist the services of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service,” the agency says. “Not all USDA-graded eggs are cage-free, and not all cage-free eggs are graded by USDA. But, eggs packed under a USDA Grade Shield and marketed as cage-free – or with any other production claim – must be source-verified by USDA through onsite farm visits, at least twice annually, to check that the laying hens are housed in the appropriate production system.

“For AMS approval, cage-free eggs must be produced by hens housed in a way that allows for not only unlimited access to food and water, but, unlike eggs from caged hens, also provides them the freedom to roam during the laying cycle. … We also know some consumers prefer their eggs to come from “free range” hens. For those eggs, we verify they are produced by hens that are not only housed in a way that allows for unlimited access to food and water and provides the freedom to roam within the area like cage-free hens but also gives the hens continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.”

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