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Top seven misleading food labels

March 6, 2018

More and more, people are seeking to become ethical eaters. For many of us, that also filters down into the types of foods we buy to feed our friends and family.

What labels do you look for in the grocery store when you’re buying humanely raised eggs, dairy and meats? Making the best choice can be a challenge. There are a lot of confusing labels on food these days.

Here we call out the top seven confusing and misleading food labels. These are the ones that tend to fool us most often.

1) All natural

You may think a “natural” claim means the animals were on pasture grazing and carrying about their daily lives as nature intended, but this claim’s definition is not based on how the animal was raised. The term “natural” relates to the food product itself (after processing), and can only be used if the food does not contain added vitamins, minerals, artificial flavours or artificial colours, and its look and form has not been significantly changed.

2) Free run chicken and turkey

“Free run” birds are cage-free. This is a step forward for egg-laying hens who are most commonly raised in cages. But in Canada, all turkeys and chickens raised for meat are cage-free, meaning they are already either “free-run” (housed indoors) or “free-range” (able to go outside). They are not housed in cages. If you see “free run” on a package of chicken or turkey, you should also see a tiny star next to it and microscopic print near the bottom of the package that says “like all chickens/turkeys in Canada.” Read more about the free run chicken myth.

3) Farm fresh

This label gives many people the “warm-and-fuzzies.” You may think “farm fresh” means your local farmer rises at dawn to hand-gather warm eggs from underneath his hens before personally delivering them to your local store, but what it actually means is nothing at all. No better treatment for animals. No special processes involved. This term is only used to make foods sound better to you, the buyer.

4) Vegetable-fed / vegetarian diet

We get it. Not everyone likes the idea of farm animals being fed other animals. But some farm animals, like chickens and pigs, are omnivores. This means they naturally eat both plants and animals. Chickens get many of their proteins in the wild from worms and bugs, and they eat feathers too. Pigs will eat other dead animals if they happen to come across them. A strictly vegetarian diet is unnatural and not the best option for omnivores who need animal-based proteins in their diets.

If you’re still bothered by the idea of pigs and chickens being fed animal-proteins, then be aware that unless a statement like “no animal by-products” follows the term “vegetable-fed”, there is no guarantee the feed contains only plants.

5) Hormone-free

“Hormone-free” is a very misleading claim because hormones occur naturally in all animals’ bodies. To say an animal was “raised without the use of added hormones” is more accurate, but it can still only be applied to beef since beef cattle are the only farm animals in Canada allowed to be given hormones. It is illegal to give hormones to poultry, dairy cows and pigs in Canada.

6) Antibiotic-free

Many people think “antibiotic-free” food is better because it means the animals all stayed healthy, clean and happy and didn’t need antibiotics, but that’s false. While the label does mean the animals were never given antibiotics, it does not mean the animals never got sick. And we feel that sick animals should get the medication they need to get well again.

To say an animal was “antibiotic-free” is also misleading because, by law, all farm animals must be free of antibiotics before they enter the human food chain. Their bodies are given time to break down and get rid of drugs before they leave the farm for slaughter. It would be more accurate to say “raised without the use of antibiotics.” Learn more about antibiotic use in farming (PDF).

Photo credit: Giovanna Baldini

7) Omega-3 (eggs)

If you think hens are fed a fancy diet so they produce eggs high in omega-3’s that will make you smarter, you are already smart! But the diet is actually not that fancy. Hens are given a bit of flaxseed or fish oil to boost the omega-3 levels in their eggs. However, this label doesn’t mean anything about how the hen was housed or treated, so there is no guarantee it was humane. In fact, these eggs typically come from hens housed in cages. So why not switch to cage-free eggs and add more flax or chia seeds or walnuts to your diet if you’re looking to boost your omega-3s?

What should I buy?

SPCA Certified foods: Third-party certification programs like SPCA Certified audit farms to a strict set of animal welfare criteria.

Certification ensures you get what you pay for when it comes to farm animal care. That’s why we recommend you buy SPCA Certified or another certified label when it comes to purchasing foods for your friends and family. Find an SPCA Certified retailer near you.

To continue decoding the good, the bad and the ugly of food labels, check out our more comprehensive food labeling guide, or get in touch with our farm animal welfare team if you have questions.

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