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Go beyond label reading

Free-range, cage-free designations may not tell the whole story

August 5, 2011
By MIKE HUGHES - The Scene , Times Leader

As food consumers, Americans have been taught to read food labels.

The idea is to know what you are looking at and know what to look for.

How many carbs per serving? How much trans fat? How much protein?

People are trying to eat a more balanced and health diet. People are also taking into consideration the treatment of the animals they are eating, not only as to how it affects the animals themselves but also the quality of eventual food product.

Such lines of thinking has given rise to food labels like "cage free," "organic" and "free range," just to name a few.

But just what do they mean?

These designations, and just how misleading they can be, come into play especially in regards to eggs and poultry meat.

Take the leading buzzword in the meat and produce market, organic.

What once was a fairly safe designation depicting natural growing processes utilized by local growers has been highly regulated by the federal government in the form of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Now, a lengthy and oftentimes confusing process must be followed in order to receive the organic designation, usually taking three years to complete.

But even with all of that regulation, the USDA's organic stamp of approval may not meet the expectations of the consumer.

In the case of chickens, to receive the USDA organic certifications, hens must be uncaged inside barns or buildings and must have access to the outdoors. The key here is that how much access isn't specified and there is no guarantee the hens will ever see the light of day. The word here to point out is "access." The hens must be fed an organic, vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.

''When the USDA took over the organic standards, they began to allow a lot of things they never should have allowed,'' said Eric Rubel from CrossRoads Farms in Belmont. ''It allowed the 'organic' brand to be industrialized."

Further adding to the confusion, Rubel says, are labels like "cage free" and "free range." These are uncertified descriptions and adherence is voluntary.

All cage free means is that the hens aren't cooped up their entire lives, crammed together with other hens in tiny cages, unable to move. But there are no regulations regarding their care and no guarantee the hens have access to the outside world.

Free range is slightly better in that the hens have access to the outdoors, but no stipulation is given as to how much."

''Cage free hens are still housed in a large confinement facility without any access to the outdoors,'' Rubel said. ''With free range, they have access to the outdoors, but it's still a large confinement operation with a small, fenced-in area with outdoor access. But it's just one location in the outdoors and it's completely devoid of vegetation.

''Companies will take what is allowed and will do the bare minimum to receive a designation then quit because their methods are economically feasible. They do it the cheapest way."

Among the many products Rubel offers at CrossRoads farms are eggs, along with chickens and turkeys for their meat.

His poultry is classified as "pasture raised."

According to the USDA, pasture raised birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed an organic diet, using no antibiotics or hormones.

Eggs coming from "pasture raised" hens will have greater Omega-3 fat content and other nutrients, as well as less cholesterol.

Rubel's chickens and turkeys are able to move around in an enclosure, but that enclosure is placed outside and moved daily, so the birds have constant outdoor access to the native vegetation.

They are able to forage for both plants and insects and this process mimics the birds' natural diets.

Obviously, there is a great deal of difference between cage free and pasture raised and Rubel feels that consumers need to study up, move beyond mere label reading and truly investigate where they are purchasing their eggs and meat from and how it's raised.

''Usually, what people have in their head then they picture, say, organic or free range or cage free, is not what is really the case,'' he said.

''That's why I strongly advise people to really do their homework.

''This isn't about me. It's about providing my local community with the safest, most nutritious food they can possibly get.''

Hughes may be reached online at mhughes@timesleaderonline.com

 
 

 

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