Keep It Clean

Honesty should be your only policy for using food labels

Writing a menu can be a nerve-racking endeavor for conscientious operators, especially when diners increasingly want to know the source of the food.

Is your fish really sustainably caught? Was the chicken humanely raised? According to Technomic’s 2018 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, 53% of consumers would like restaurants to be more transparent about what’s in their menu items.

Every menu should be treated as if it were a contract between you and your diners, chefs say. Yet confusion abounds around terms such as “sustainably fished,” “gluten- or nut-free” and “humanely raised.”

If you make a claim or apply a particular label, it better be 100% accurate. Those with a strong command over the meaning of menu labels can leverage them to great effect, creating loyal regulars. Those who use them incorrectly can find themselves with empty dining rooms. Here’s insight from the leading organizations that can give your claims credibility.

One of the challenges with menu labeling is that ingredients, suppliers and product composition can change, so being able to learn in real time what has been used to prepare an order is critical.

— Lisa Gable, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education.



Meat, dairy and eggs with Humane Farm’s Certified Humane® classification come from farm animals raised with shelter, resting areas and space sufficient to support natural behavior, says Mimi Stein, executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care, an international nonprofit certification organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production. Restaurants that sign up for the organization’s “traceability audits” are given a sticker, which indicates that all of their food products have been traced back to a farm, barn, flock or herd that was inspected by its auditors.


Be very careful. “The terms ‘humanely raised’ and ‘raised with care’ are not clearly defined by the USDA and are not backed by any audits or specific standards,” says Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Therefore, they offer no assurance about the animals’ welfare.” A more credible approach: use third-party certifications.


Products come from animals raised without cages, crates or tie stalls, among other key practices. Auditors visit farms at least once a year to inspect whether cattle, hogs and poultry are grazing primarily or completely on pastures. Only family farms can participate in the program. AWA has the most stringent standards for animal welfare in North America, according to findings in Consumer Reports’ “Food Labels Exposed.” “Unfortunately people don’t realize that there’s so much leeway around what’s described as humane,” says Emily Moose, spokeswoman for AWA’s umbrella group, A Greener World.


The term is meaningful if backed by certification from reputable organizations, including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which applies little blue fish logos next to seafood that meet its standards.

The MSC label attests to “chain of custody,” which ensures fish and seafood products are traceable to certified sustainable fisheries - and that the fish dish is actually from the species listed, a protection against instances of mislabeling or outright fraud, says MSC spokeswoman Jackie Marks.


It’s an unregulated term. Some food makers use the term to refer to products that have no intended nut ingredients. Others are referring to products made in facilities that don’t use nuts.


Misleading when used on chicken or turkey meat, as those birds are not raised in cages in the United States. Only egg-layers are raised in cages. That being said, there’s no legal or regulated definition for “cage free” eggs. Hens laying eggs labeled cage free often live inside large, overcrowded barns, warehouses or even on concrete lots.


The term is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so menu items must meet the FDA approved standard of no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. That’s the lowest level that can be consistently detected.

However, the FDA’s Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 only applies to packaged foods. Package labeling covers wheat (gluten) and seven other foods that account for some 90% of food allergies — milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts and soybeans.


A five-step program classifies animal welfare. In steps one and two, expect that pigs and chickens are raised indoors, or beef cattle “finished” for the last third of their lives in feed lots. Meat at step three usually has some outdoor access.

“It’s about raising an animal in a totally different way from standard industrial production,” says Libba Letton, a spokesperson for the nonprofit.