Since that's still impossible for many urbanites, Consumer Reports has developed a rating system, a database and a web site for evaluating environmental and food labels — one of several such guides that have popped up recently to help consumers.
The guides show that labels such as "natural" and "free range" carry little meaning, because they lack clear standards or a verification system.
Despite this, consumers are willing to pay more for "free range" eggs and poultry, and studies show they value "natural" over "organic," which is governed by lengthy federal regulations.
But some consumers and watchdog groups are becoming more vigilant.
In October, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Petaluma, Calif., organic egg producer of Judy's Eggs over "free range" claims. The company's packaging depicts a hen ranging on green grass, and the inside reads "these hens are raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley..."
Aerial photos of the farm suggest the chickens actually live in factory-style sheds, according to the lawsuit. Judy and Steve Mahrt, owners of Petaluma Farms, said in a statement that the suit is "frivolous, unfair and untrue," but they did not comment on the specific allegations.
Meanwhile, new labels are popping up rapidly. The Food Justice label, certified via third party audits, guarantees a farm's commitment to fair living wages and adequate living and working conditions for farmworkers. And Wildlife Friendly, another third-party audited program, certifies farmers and ranchers who peacefully co-exist with wolves, coyotes, foxes and other predators.
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