Catch phrases are so awesome at making you think you’re doing the right thing, and nowhere does that apply more than in the food world. Just as “reduced sodium” and ” low fat” can trick us into thinking food is healthy, labels applied to agriculturally produced products may conjure up images of ethically treated animals and environmentally sensitive products. If you’re trying to do the right thing, knowing the labelling truth can go a long way. Here are some of the more common traps.
This term is commonly applied to poultry and eggs. It sounds a lot like Free Range, and we all know free is good, right? “Free as a bird” is exactly HOW free? Don’t be fooled. Free Run simply means that the animals are not kept in those little 1 square foot battery cages… they are allowed to move around. Free Run does not mean they have very much room to move, or that they ever see daylight. They could be packed vent to beak, but if there are no cages, they’re Free Run. I don’t see much running going on in here, though. Maybe it’s because they can’t afford sneakers?
Again, there’s that “free” thing. Free Range sounds pretty hopeful… after all, what could be bad about ranging freely? Well, If you’re a chicken that’s doing it for real, probably nothing except foxes and eagles. Unfortunately, lots of commercial Free Rangers aren’t exactly spending their days eating bugs and basking in the sun.
Take that coop pictured above and put a little dog door right at the end leading into a tiny outside pen. Technically the birds now have access to the outside, the sun, the rain, and the bugs, and therefore qualify as Free Range. Never mind that it’s highly unlikely that the birds at THIS end of the coop will ever make it down to the other end unless they choose to walk on the backs of their buddies. Not all Free Range poultry is raised like this, but without visiting the farm, how do you know? This is why we choose to call our turkeys “Free Roam”. They truly do have the freedom to be inside or out, or across the road eating choke cherries. (OK, that might be a little too much freedom, but that’s another story.)
Organic is a term with the best of intentions… and it comes at a price of $600 a year in Nova Scotia. To be labeled as “organic” a product has to meet stringent standards and the farmer has to jump through plenty of hoops and paperwork to achieve certification. On the other end, there are consumers with a notion that organic is healthier and so they’re willing to pay a premium. farmers who use organic methods of growing are awesome, don’t get me wrong. The problem is that unless EVERY farmer uses organic methods it might all be for naught. If the farmer doesn’t apply pesticides and chemical fertilizers to his crops he’s doing his part to grow healthy and environmentally sustainable food, but anything can blow in on the wind from a neighbouring farm. Many farmers have decided that Organic certification isn’t worth the hassle. Instead, they represent their products as “spray-free”, hoping consumers will understand that the same principles apply, but not the same prices. An organic product will likely cost more than a spray-free product because it’s a word that consumers trust. There is plenty of organically produced food, however, that will never bear that word on the label.
When applied to poultry, this term is extremely misleading. It’s printed on the package as if it makes that chicken so much better than all the other stuff on the shelves. Well, guess what? ALL chicken is grain fed…chickens need the nutrition in grains to grow and function. What you really want to see on the label is “pastured”. Pastured chickens are chickens who supplement that grain diet with bugs and grass and weeds, and all the good stuff they can scratch from the dirt. While “Grain fed” may be accurate, it really doesn’t mean anything at all.
I always thought that “local” referred to the vicinity where you are. Dictionary.com backs me up by defining local as “pertaining to a city, town, or small district, rather than an entire state or country.” Well, it said state, but it didn’t mention province. I guess that’s why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines local as coming from within the same province, or food that’s sold no more than 50 km from the border of the originating province. If someone buys a bag of McCains frozen fries in Amherst, they are eating local fries, even though they were produced 375 km away in Florenceville-Bristol. If you’re in Cape Breton you can eat local berries from Yarmouth.
Most of the people I know who want to eat local choose to do so as a way to support the economy in their own communities and to avoid contributing to the environmental damage done by shipping food halfway around the planet. Truly eating local also means you’re getting the freshest and most nutritious food possible. Guess the Federal Government sees local differently.
The best way to pick out the food that meets with your own value set is not to read labels, but rather to talk to the person who grew it. If you’re doing that then there’s a REALLY good chance you’re buying local.
Whatever that means.