When it comes to food labels, there is the fine print and the not so fine print. Both are equally important when it comes to food safety and the sustainability of food we purchase and consume.
“Reading labels can help you make informed food choices,” says the National Institute of on Aging
The fine print includes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Nutrition Facts, which includes key details such as calories and nutritional make-up per serving size, and the product’s ingredients list, vital information, especially for those with food allergies.
While the fine print is normally found on the back of a product, the not so fine print can be found anywhere with “sell by”, “use by” and “best if used by” dates printed discreetly in random spots.
Other labels are more front and center such as “Cage Free!” or “Certified Organic” or “Pasture Raised!” and while they grab our attention, most consumers do not have a full grasp of their meaning.
“The current rules on food labeling leave a lot of room for vague claims that make it difficult to differentiate between food produced by sustainable farmers using humane practices, and corporate agribusinesses greenwashing their products,” writes Amanda Starbuck for Food & Water Watch.
Not All Food Labels are Created Equal
Starbuck argues that these not so fine print labels found on food products such as meat, poultry and eggs roughly fall into three categories:
- Labels that mean something and are truly useful
- Labels that provide only limited information
- Labels that may be misleading
“You can and should be informed about what current labeling practices really mean and how they affect you,” writes Starbuck.
Some of the most useful labels you may see at your local market include Certified Organic seals, Country of Origin labels, USDA Inspected and the Treated with Irradiation symbol.
Other labels, such as “Cage Free”, “Pasture Raised”, “Grass Fed”, “No Antibiotics” and “No Hormones” supply more limited information to the consumer.
Some labels, such as “Free Range”, “Naturally Raised”, or “Fresh” could actually be misleading.
Certified Organic: USDA Seal of Approval
“Right now, the most meaningful label on your food, in terms of upholding specific government requirements, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal,” writes Starbuck.
Organic product labels must be reviewed and approved by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before being used in the marketplace.
The USDA says that “people who sell or label a product "organic" when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be assessed a financial penalty with fines of several thousands of dollars for each violation.”
Organic products must be produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity. Products must be:
- Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program (NOP) authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations
- Produced without excluded or prohibited methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge)
- Produced using allowed substances
Where in the World: Know Where Your Food Comes From
County of Origin Labeling (COOL) is a consumer labeling law that requires retailers (most grocery stores and supermarkets) to identify the country of origin on certain foods referred to as “covered commodities”.
According to the USDA, covered commodities include:
- Muscle cuts and ground lamb, chicken and goat
- Wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish
- Perishable agricultural commodities (i.e.: fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables)
- Peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts
The COOL rule does not stipulate the exact size or placement of COOL declarations, only that the statements be “legible and placed in a conspicuous location where they are likely to be read and understood by a customer.”
Where’s the Beef (Inspection)? Ask the USDA
The USDA is on the lookout for consumers with the inspection and grading of meat and poultry under two separate programs.
Inspection for wholesomeness is mandatory and is paid for out of tax dollars, while grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers/processors.
“The Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for ensuring that meat, poultry, Siluriformes, and eggs are safe and properly labeled and packaged,” says the USDA.
Food Labels That Leave Questions
Among those food labels that may leave questions unanswered:
- Fresh: USDA does not define or regulate the use of the “fresh” label on any products except poultry.
- Free Range: USDA does not regulate this term for pigs, cattle, or egg-producing chickens.
- Naturally Raised: Can include products where antibiotics and hormones were used.
- Grass Fed: Refers to food source only. Does not indicate antibiotic and hormone use as well as animal conditions.
- Cage Free: Birds can still be raised indoors in large factory farms.