Food labels help you tell a story with your menu

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

Is your fish really sustainably sourced? 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 caught” 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



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.


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.


Third-party certification 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.


Created by the American Humane Association, American Humane Certified is the first third-party certifying body in the U.S. specializing in the welfare of livestock and poultry. The AHA has established comprehensive, science-based standards for pork, beef, poultry and dairy to help ensure that farms raising livestock and poultry under their certification improve animal welfare.


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.


A five-step program classifies animal welfare. In steps one and two, expect that pigs and chickens are raised indoors, or beef cattle are “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.


The term is meaningful if backed by certification from reputable organizations, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), which applies little blue fish logos next to seafood that meets its standards.

If a company wants to put the MSC logo on their product or dish, they must have “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.