What Does Fair Trade Mean? 9 Common Food Labels, Decoded

Chances are, if you're a Millennial with a little cash, your weekly grocery shop is a blaze of labels and marks with various earth-friendly slogans: Fair Trade, USDA Organic, Cage Free, Massaged By Elves And Cultivated To The Sound Of Harps. Labels, however, can be tricky things. It seems fairly simple to try and shop ethically and healthilylook out for things that sound positive, natural and green! — but to really know what's what, you need to be up to speed on the regulations behind food label classification, and what criteria a food must pass before it's given a certain word to use on its packaging. Despite looking simple on the surface, classifying food can be an intriguing business underneath — and you may be being misled by a few common misconceptions.

The basic skinny behind food labels is that the trustworthy ones are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or by independent third parties. The FDA's strict on nutritional claims; you can't put the word "healthy" on your food unless it's low in cholesterol, fat, and sodium and contains 10 percent of the recommended daily intake for something necessary, like fiber. On other stuff, though, they're a little more lenient — or don't regulate at all. (For instance, the FDA has no laws at all on using the word "natural" on food labels.)

So whether you're starting to reshape your shop to protect the planet or give more money to farmers, here's your guide to the labels on your groceries, precisely what they mean, and whether a label that promises "100% cage free eggs" can actually be trusted.

1. Fairtrade Certified

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What It Means: This label means some very specific and legal things. It's not given out by the FDA, but by Fairtrade International, a monitoring body that works worldwide. Everything with the Fairtrade Certified label you recognize has gone through them — and the standards are high. The basic principle is that workers and producers of Fairtrade goods aren't exploited or underpaid — Fairtrade says it's all about "promoting fairer trading conditions for disadvantaged producers" — but it's hardly a cakewalk to get yourself certified.

For your product to qualify as Fairtrade, it needs to meet Fairtrade International's standards, which are pretty vigorous: they cover workers' rights, collective bargaining, high working conditions, fair contracts, and payment that covers producers' costs and gives them certainty. Specific products, like tea, coffee, honey, cocoa, and nuts, need to follow their own strict industry standards depending on the region. That label's pretty hard-won.

What To Watch Out For: Anything that claims to be fair trade without the symbol isn't actually certified.

2. USDA Organic

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What It Means: "Organic" is one of the labels that the federal government controls pretty closely. The Department Of Agriculture, or USDA, is in charge of certifying producers if they want to claim their food's organic, and they have to jump through a lot of hoops before they can get the label. The USDA's definition of organic food is that it's produced "using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics." (Note the "most" there.)

Interestingly, the product only has to be 95 percent organic to qualify, and there are over 200 non-organic products that can be legally added for something still to be organic. Here's what a farmer has to do, according to the rules of the Department Of Agriculture, to have his or her produce classified USDA Organic:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

What To Watch Out For: The USDA Organic mark is a round badge that can either be black or green, and is usually displayed prominently on the front of a label.

3. Cage-Free & Free-Range

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What It Means: This is an example of a label that can get a bit tricky. These labels are for poultry only, and all the producers have to show for "free-range" classification is that the birds have access to the outside world (rather than being cooped up in batteries), to do what's called natural behaviors, like nesting. But that's where the regulation stops: you don't have to prove they actually do go outside, or what's out there.

And "cage-free" just means that the chickens are raised inside barns and not cages; it doesn't guarantee that they'll have any way to go outside, and it also allows for arguably cruel practices like de-beaking.

What To Watch Out For: Note the difference in wording — free range, free-roaming, with natural light, pastured — and be careful to understand the conditions each one requires; research different brands' records on chicken welfare.

4. Food Alliance Certified

What It Means: A Food Alliance sticker means that the food has been sustainably produced according to the standards of the Food Alliance's strict certification measures. It's a North American non-profit organization that covers all kinds of "sustainable" farming practices, from conservation to recycling and humane treatment of animals.

The Food Alliance does a lot of things that the USDA's organic certification does, in other words — with the notable exception that they're careful to mention they only make farmers "reduce use of pesticides and other toxic or hazardous materials," not wipe them out altogether. Before you throw them out of the shopping cart, though, this can be a more realistic approach than a blanket ban.

What To Watch Out For: Most Food Alliance certified products are found on the West Coast of the U.S.; the Alliance provides a handy map of places to find certified agriculture.

5. Certified Humane Raised And Handled

What It Means: "Certified Humane" is another label produced by an independent operation: the Humane Farm Animal Care organization, which prioritizes what it calls "kinder and more responsible farm animal practices" on the animals we eat, from cows to chickens.

A Certified Humane sticker means a pretty comprehensive standard's been met — the HFAC's requirements go from birth to slaughter for every animal on a farm, and include food (which can't have growth hormones), space, and general life standards. Temple Grandin, the famous activist and advisor on animal behavior, is a member of its scientific committee.

What To Watch Out For: Be careful about the word "humane" more generally; in 2014 the chicken company Perdue was successfully sued for misleading packaging for putting "humanely raised" on its chicken products. The Animal Welfare Approved sticker is a good alternative to Certified Humane if you catch sight of it.

6. Wild-Caught

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What It Means: This label, for fish, has been a bit of a scandal. Wild-caught fish are ones caught out in the open ocean, depleting natural populations, while farmed fish are raised by humans. "Wild-caught" ones are more expensive and often healthier, because they've lived in natural conditions. However, even though the FDA has a standard that says you have to declare which fish is which, in practice few do — in 2006 a survey found that 50 percent of all salmon sold in supermarkets under the "wild-caught" label was probably farmed.

This appears to be part of a wider problem; a 2011 study by Consumer Report discovered that a whopping 20 percent of fish bought were incorrectly labelled. So take your seafood labels with a large pinch of sea salt.

What To Watch Out For: If you're buying fish from a market, try to get somebody who can tell you accurately where it came from; stuff in cans or packages is more likely to have been mislabelled. Also look for the Marine Stewardship Council's sticker for seafood that has been certified as sustainable.

7. Certified Pesticide Residue Free

What It Means: Pesticides are an interesting one in food labeling law. Remember, the USDA's Organic label allows some pesticides — because natural ones are allowed. As advocates have pointed out, organic pesticides exist, it's just necessary to use larger amounts to get them to work. And pesticides in general are necessary for the high yields and sanitary conditions of much of today's food.

If you're still tempted to run for the hills when the word's mentioned, however, the Certified Pesticide Residue Free label is the only one that guarantees a more or less complete lack of pesticides on your produce, as determined by laboratory testing.

What To Watch Out For: If you're concerned about pesticides, note that "pesticide-free" labels don't have any legal obligation to be absolutely accurate or to discuss percentages and leftover residue, so enquire more thoroughly.

8. Radura Symbol

What It Means: Since 1986, the FDA has required that any food treated by irradiation — a widely practiced use of radiation to preserve food, kill pests, and delay ripening — must be marked with the Radura symbol, which looks a little like a sprouting plant. Irradiation in the U.S. is allowed on some products to avoid common problems with germs or insects, like wheat flour, dried herbs, and spices, frozen red meat, and pork.

The Radura doesn't mean that the meat or herbs are now radioactive, though. That's a common misconception that has led to the Radura being seen as a warning flag; irradiated foods are perfectly healthy. The Radura also doesn't have to be applied to processed food that has been irradiated along the way.

What To Watch Out For: All food that's been irradiated will have a little blurb in text mentioning the fact alongside the Radura, so it'll be obvious what it means if you're confused by the symbol.

9. Grass Fed

What It Means: If you're a meat-eater, you probably associate grass-fed meat with the best of the best — but the label doesn't tell the whole story. The idyllic image of cows grazing purely on the best and lushest grass while frolicking in the pasture isn't quite correct; while the FDA's standard for grass-fed labels mean that the cow, sheep, or goat has to have been fed fresh grass all of its life, it doesn't have to have done it outside.

The FDA itself records this. "Although consumers are likely to associate the term 'grass fed' with the concept of free roaming or pasture raised livestock," it said in a report on farm animal welfare, "under the current definition, 'grass fed' means considerably less in terms of animal welfare."

What To Watch Out For: The American Grass-fed Association has its own stricter certification of grass-fed meat, so if it's something you feel strongly about, their label is the one to watch for.

Images: Getty, Wikimedia Commons, Shiloh Meats, Certified Pesticide Residue Free, Certified Humane, Food Alliance Certified