June 26 2013 12:00 AM

A deeper look at the language of organic food

We devoted last month’s article to decoding some of the trickier language associated with organic farming, but that merely skimmed the surface. This month, we’ve created a dictionary of common organic-related terminology that you’ll come across in any grocery store or farmers market, defined with some help from a local farmer and a food expert.

Big Organic: You won’t find this term on food labels, but it’s a good one to keep in mind. On a corporate scale, many of the same problems that plague the traditional food system can creep in with the use of industrial methods. “These are large farms that rely heavily on machinery and large workforces,” said Rebecca Titus of Titus Farms in Leslie. 

“More than half of the 30 largest food processors in North America have acquired organic food brands, and few of these brands note their corporate parentage on their labels,” said Phil Howard, professor of community, food and agriculture at Michigan State University. “It’s a pattern described as ‘stealth ownership.’” The organic brand Cascadian Farm, for example, is owned by General Mills. 

Cage free: This means that egg-producing chickens aren’t in cages with multiple birds per cage, as is often the case. But the birds can still be contained to a degree — how much room they have to move about varies, and they may never live outdoors. (See also: Free Range.) 

Certified naturally grown: For sustainable farmers who want a certification but prefer to steer clear of the USDA program, this is a grassroots certification that has been adopted primarily by smaller farms. According to the farmers market locator localharvest.org, standards are based on the USDA’s program, but with better livestock living conditions and some other improvements. 

Cottage food: Prepared foods from home kitchens that aren’t officially certified. “This label saves vendors who produce only a small amount of value-added product every year from having to take on the incredible investment of a certified kitchen,” Titus explained. Other creative ways to lessen the cost for small producers include incubator kitchens like Incu-BaKe in Holt and the Allen Market Place in Lansing.

Crop rotation: Healthy soil naturally depends on the seasonal rotation of crops grown in the same area, but chemicals have allowed us to temporarily bypass this requirement. Crop rotation is an important organic principle that moves agriculture back toward more sustainable natural rhythms. This promotes diversity and polyculture, versus an unhealthy monoculture.  

Ecologically or sustainably grown: This label describes a sustainable method of farming without official certification or regulations. “Most, if not all, of the farmers I know who use this term follow organic standards,” Titus said. “But they opt for much less, or no, chemical usage (compared with) large organic farms.” 

Farmer direct: The seller didn’t grow the product he or she is selling, but instead purchased the product directly from the farmer who did. 

Free range: This typically means that livestock were not caged and were allowed to live outside and roam freely. But this can be tricky. “The size of that outside area can be large or small,” Titus warned. So it pays to do some further investigating. 

Homegrown/homemade: The seller grew or produced the food he or she is selling. 

Pastured/grass-fed: While the industrial food system has decided that it makes economic sense to feed cows grains, cows naturally eat grass in green pastures, not feed lots. Feeding cows an unnatural diet, plus tight quarters and unsanitary conditions, requires antibiotics that humans then consume. Alternatively, pastured or grass-fed beef means that the animals have eaten grass and lived all or most of their lives outdoors. Allowing animals to roam in larger spaces and to live humanely requires more cost for the farmer and usually means a more expensive product, but the meat is much healthier for consumption. “This represents the type of animal agriculture that is more respectful to the life of that animal,” Titus said. 

USDA Organic: Food products from both grocery stores and local farms can carry the USDA Organic label, indicating that the food is grown in compliance with the National Organic Program’s rules. Area farmers have a wide range of opinions on this program. While some feel that national standards are necessary and the requirements can ensure food is grown more sustainably than conventional chemical agriculture, others argue that this certification can be cost-prohibitive, that problems with conventionally grown food can still be present in USDA Organic agriculture, and/or the label alone is not enough. They promote smaller-scale farming or independent certifications instead. 

For more terms and definitions, visit localharvest.org or organic.org.