Glossary:

This page provides more detailed explanations of how the law regulates some commonly used terms on food labels

All Natural - The FDA has affirmatively declined to define this term. However, the FDA does consider the use of “natural” as misleading and un-truthful when the product contains artificial or synthetic additives, such as colors and flavors. For example, products that contain high-fructose corn syrup, ascorbic acid, and added citric acid should not be labeled as all natural.

 

Meat and poultry producers under USDA jurisdiction who use the term "natural" must demonstrate that:

  •      The product does not contain any artificial flavoring, coloring ingredients, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and
  •      The product and its ingredients have only been minimally processed.

Cage Free - This term is not defined by the USDA. However, if a USDA-inspected egg producer wants to use the term “cage free” on its egg cartons, the agency must first verify the claim. The USDA will allow the use of the term if the poultry flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water.

Free Range/Free Roaming - This term is not defined by the USDA. However, if a USDA-inspected producer wants to use the term “free range,” the agency must first verify the claim. The USDA will allow the use of the term if the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to outdoors, which can mean the facility has a window.

Fresh - This term means that the food is unprocessed, in its raw state, and has not been subject to any thermal processing or any other form of preservation. A product can still be labeled as fresh if coated in approved waxes, sprayed post-harvest with approved pesticides, rinsed in a mild chlorine or mild acid wash, or treated with ionizing radiation.

Grass Fed - If a USDA-inspected producer wants to use this term, the agency must first verify the claim. The USDA will allow the use of the term if the producer can show that the animals received a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life. Unlike the organic label, this label does not limit the use of antibiotics, or hormones.

Natural Flavor - This means that the component of the product whose significant function is flavoring, as opposed to nutritional, is derived from one of the following sources: a spice; fruit or fruit juice; vegetable or vegetable juice; edible yeast; herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material; meat; seafood; poultry; eggs; or dairy products.

No Added Hormones - If a USDA-inspected producer wants to use this term, the agency must first verify the claim. The USDA will allow the use of the term if the producer can document that no hormones were administered during the course of the animal’s lifetime. As a general matter, hormones are only approved for use in beef cattle and lamb production.

Non-GMO/GMO-Free/Non-GE/GE Free - This has not been defined by the FDA. In fact, the FDA has recently issued guidance stating that they consider these terms to be misleading on most foods. Food producers use these terms to communicate to consumers that certain products do not contain genetically engineered crops. Any producer can use these terms without pre-approval by the FDA.

Organic - This term means that a product has been produced according to the standards in the Organics Foods Production Act (OFPA). This includes but is not limited to:

  •      Following an organic production or handling system plan,
  •      Using organically grown (not genetically engineered) seeds and crops,
  •      Using non-chemical management practices to prevent crop pests, weeds, and disease,
  •      management of crop nutrients and soil fertility through cover crops, crop rotations, and the application of plant and animal materials.

USDA Process Verified - The USDA offers this seal to producers as a marketing tool, and it functions similarly to the claim that a product is all natural. Participating producers submit their standards for consideration, and once the USDA grants approval of those standards, the department conducts audits to verify that the company is following its own standards.

 

For example, the meaning of a term such as ‘humanely raised’ can vary widely among producers, yet all are eligible to receive USDA process Process Verified approval for the claim so long as each is following its own standards.