Sunday, January 16, 2011

What We Eat...And How It's Labeled

Preface: I write this little column for Roundup's local paper, the Roundup Record, each month. It is called "What We Eat....". Thought I'd post it here as well.

Natural, Certified Organic, Raised Without Antibiotics, Raised Without Added Hormones, Cage-Free, Free Range........

Have you ever stood in your grocery store aisle, wondering what all of the food packaging labels really mean? Are “natural” foods really just as good as their more expensive “certified organic” counterparts? What do the “cage-free” and “free-range” labels on industrially-produced eggs and meat really mean? Are the “raised without added hormones” and “raised without antibiotics” claims legitimate?

The questions can be as numerous as the packaging labels, and each one is important to ask. That is because some labels are regulated and do, in fact, communicate meaningful information, while others are simply tricky advertising ploys to get you, the consumer, to pick one product over another.

Not all of the answers are completely straightforward either. Take, for example, the “Raised Without Added Hormones” packaging claim. This label is essentially meaningless if it appears on a poultry or pork product, because the USDA does not permit the use of hormones in the raising of poultry or swine. If you look closely at your package of “Raised Without Added Hormones” chicken, you will likely notice an asterisk that points you to the fine print acknowledgment that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry.” This statement is required on all poultry or pork products that proclaim that they are raised without additional hormones.

On a package of beef or lamb, however, the “Raised Without Added Hormones” label actually means something, as there are growth-enhancing hormones approved for use in the raising of cattle and sheep. The USDA states that the producer making the “Raised Without Added Hormones” claim is required to “provide the Agency with sufficient documentation showing that no hormones have been used in raising the animals.”

Cage Free Chickens
Antibiotics are currently used in the production of poultry, swine and cattle to prevent disease, promote growth and to treat diagnosed disease. If a food claims that it has been “Raised Without Antibiotics,” the USDA requires that the producer “provide the Agency with sufficient documentation that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”

Cage-free” and “free-range” are confusing labels as well. For example, a package of “cage-free” chicken meat is probably not different from its unlabeled freezer-mate, as chickens raised for meat are not typically caged before they are transported for slaughter. The “cage-free” label on an egg carton is meaningful however, and it describes a step up from the average laying hen's life, which is spent within a tiny cage. But it does not indicate that the laying hens had access to the outdoors, or that they lived in uncrowded conditions. “Cage-free” birds are likely to live uncaged, within a large, crowded warehouse-like building with many thousands of other hens.
Badger Rock Farm Chickens - Early Spring 2010

The average industrially-raised, “free range” meat chicken's life is not very different. While the label might bring to the consumer's mind the image of a chicken roaming over a sunlit, grassy pasture, the reality is that it probably lived, uncaged, within a large, crowded building with many thousands of other birds and may or may not have ever stepped outside. This is because the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approves “free range” labeling of poultry meat products “if the producer can demonstrate that the birds were allowed continuous, free access to the outside for over 51 percent of their lives.” It does not state that the birds must actually access this outdoor space. It also does not define what the quality of that outdoor space must be, or how much of it must be available. When “free-range” is used to reference egg products, it can mean whatever the manufacturer wants it to mean, because the USDA regulates the term for poultry meat products, but not for eggs.

How about “natural” versus “organic?” Do they mean essentially the same thing? The quick answer to that is no. Only food produced according to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards can be labeled as organic, and it must be certified by an independent, third-party. Certified organic foods may not be produced using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or sewage sludge. They may not be genetically engineered, or irradiated. Animal products that are certified organic come from animals that were fed organic feed without animal byproducts and were raised without antibiotics or added hormones. All certified organic poultry is cage-free, but the NOP does not dictate minimum space requirements, stocking density or flock size.

The use of the word “natural” on foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) means that nothing artificial or synthetic, including color additives, was added to the food product. Generally speaking, FDA regulated foods are eggs still in their shell, dairy products such as milk, cheese and ice cream, and products that do not contain meat.

The USDA regulates foods that contain meat and “egg products” (eggs that have been removed from their shells for processing). The “natural” label on foods under the USDA's jurisdiction indicates that the product does not contain any artificial flavors, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives. It also must not be more than minimally processed, and the package has to carry a statement describing what is meant by the “natural” label. Whether regulated by the FDA or the USDA, the term “natural” does not mean that the food was produced without the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers or sewage sludge and it says nothing about whether the food product was irradiated or made using genetically engineered ingredients. It also has no relevance whatsoever to the conditions under which animals (in the case of meat or egg products) were raised.

This is by no means a complete list of the food packaging labels that exist. Even with this abbreviated list, however, it's clear that deciphering the truth behind labeling claims is bewildering at best. As a consumer, it is wise to always remember that the bold letters on the grocery store shelf are intended to sell you something. A healthy dose of skeptical caution, and some homework can go a long way towards making sure your food is what you expect it to be.