Quick Guide to Common Labels Related to Vermont Foods

July, 2018

USDA Certified Organic:   

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that a food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods, and that a food with multiple ingredients contains primarily organic ingredients. The goal of the regulated organic methods is “. . .to integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. . . this means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife.”

The USDA organic regulations include organic system plan requirements, recordkeeping requirements, comprehensive process audits, and inspections that trace organic product from market to farm.

Visit the USDA website for a complete list of approved and prohibited practices. There have been recent rules clarifications removing humane animal treatment considerations and allowing hydroponic production. The list of allowed substances is also regularly reviewed and updated.

 Vermont Organic Farmers and NOFA-VT 

Vermont Organic Farmers LLC (VOF) is the USDA accredited certification program of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). NOFA-VT combines certification and resources to help continuously improve production practices, with the goal of farmers using a holistic approach to soil fertility, pest control, plant, animal and human health.  They work to ensure integrity and transparency throughout the certification process to guarantee that the end product meets the high standards of organic production. NOFA has also been involved in discussions about alternative organic standards that go beyond those set at the federal level. For an example of this debate, read this article on the Real Organic Project. NOFA-VT also has a new grassfed program (see later).


 Non-GMO Project Label  

There are many GMO-related labels. Before the rule that food makers must label foods “containing genetically engineered materials” (the actual label for which is under review) there were labels to show not containing GMO’s. Organic is one of them. The most popular GMO-specific third party label is the Non-GMO Project.

The Non-GMO Project is a mission-driven nonprofit organization offering a third-party non-GMO verification program. They define a GMO as “a genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”

The definition used in the federal labeling law is “a food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

Cage Free and Free Range Eggs

The USDA has standards for some terms related to eggs. Cage Free, which means unlimited access to food and water and the ability to move outside of a cage. It does not include rules around access to the outdoors and does not mean the hens have a large amount of room. Free Range means the hens have access to the outdoors at all times, but does not regulate the quality of that outdoors or how easy access might be. The USDA does not have a standard for “pasture raised” a commonly used term to indicate a higher quality access to outdoors (more often used for non-poultry livestock). For additional information on the treatment of hens, refer to the humane certified labels.

Humane Certification

We published a short article on humane certification standards in February 2018, found here. The short story is that the standards involve animal treatment with regards to issues like access to the outdoors, air quality, physical alterations (eg dehorning, tail docking), and feed quality. . . .the specifics change by program. There’s a chart if you want to get into the details in this 2017 guide from ASPCA and the Vermont Law School. The three most common humane labels are:


Grass Fed

Grass fed was a USDA regulated term until 2016 under their “USDA Process Verification” seal. Until that point, the federal requirement was that animals eat only grass or grass-based feed after being weaned from from mother’s milk, and that farms provide access to pasture during the growing season. It did not have requirements with regards to the health of that pasture or other animal care practices. The two major grass-fed verification programs today are American Grassfed and Food Alliance certified. Both of these include more comprehensive standards regarding the quality of the pasture and animal welfare standards. NOFA-VT has an option now for organic farmers to also get certified grassfed by their VOF inspectors, so some products carry a 100% grassfed certified by NOFA-VT label (without a catchy logo).


Local Labels

Eco Apple   

Several Vermont apple growers use the Eco Apple label developed by Red Tomato and the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America. This label signifies growers use ecology-based growing practices that promote soil and tree health, nurture pollinators, and protect biodiversity. Orchards are certified annually by the IPM Institute of North America.

Bird Friendly

Vermont’s Audubon Society runs the Bird Friendly Maple project to signify maple products from sugarbushes that are actively managed for a diverse, bird-friendly habitat. 

Other Labels

This list leaves out labels in seafood and global fair trade as they are not particular to Vermont raised food (but hey - it’s a digital list, it can grow, let us know what more information you want on here by e-mailing info@vermontfresh.net)