Food Labels Deciphered

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Food Labels Deciphered

What if I told you, that everything you think you know about food labels, is a mirage? Picking up on the popularity of local agriculture, and humanely raised meat, the large meat producers have flooded the market with new packaging and food labels that can be misleading at best or ugly lies at the worst. The lack of regulation of these terms leaves a ton of room for interpretation. So, I will do my best to show you, “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  

Let’s start with a few broad terms that we see thrown around in the supermarket aisles.

Product of the USA: Sounds great right? We all want to support American

agriculture. The problem is that use of this label only requires that some portion of the processing was done in the US. There are some meat companies that sell foreign beef, slaughtered in foreign facilities as a “Product of the USA” because it was broken down into steaks in a US butcher shop. So regardless of how many American flags are on the box, that animal may never have drawn a breath in the good old USA.

Certified Organic: Now, this one has some utility, but it’s important to understand what it covers and what it doesn’t. The simplest way to think about this label is that it tells us some useful information about what was kept out of the production process for this product, but very little about the quality of the inputs. This label requires careful validation that the feed consumed by the animals was never treated with herbicides or pesticides, it prohibits the use of growth hormones and limits the use of antibiotics. There are some stipulations about outdoor access, but they are not well defined and are open to interpretation. This is a good start, but it doesn’t tell you much about the animal’s quality of life, overall health, or the nutritional value of the food.

All Natural: This is a loaded phrase that evokes ideas of idyllic pastures and

natural living, but as defined by the USDA, it only applies to the processing procedures, it has no meaning regarding the animal itself. “Natural” means that the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.

No Added Hormones: Seems positive, however this only matters for beef. Use of growth hormones is illegal in the production of pigs and poultry so if you see this on a package of chicken, it’s just there because some marketing consultant thought it was a good idea.

No animal byproducts or vegetarian raised: Again, this only matters for herbivores (cattle and sheep). Pigs and chickens are omnivores and can benefit from other elements in their diet. We pride ourselves on giving our chickens access to pasture where they eat a lot of non-vegetarian bugs and worms!

No antibiotics: There is some controversy out there on this one, so I’ll give you my perspective. Antibiotics are not always a bad thing. If an animal is sick, we will administer an antibiotic to save its life. The law mandates that you can’t harvest that animal within a certain time frame of treating it with antibiotics to allow the medication to clear its system. The problem with antibiotics in livestock comes from the continual use of medicated feeds that are often used in high volume, confinement operations. Medicated feed is used to prevent disease among large groups of animals living in otherwise unhealthy conditions.

Humanely Raised: Unless it’s from a 3rd party certification, this term is extremely broad and largely undefined. This could simply mean that the animal had access to food and water. There is no regulation of the practices that qualify as humane. My favorite label in this category is “raised with love.” Well played guys.

Locally Grown: Completely undefined at the USDA level. I’m sure you can see

how this is completely relative. However, some states have developed their own labels to differentiate goods produced in the state. Pennsylvania uses the “PA Preferred” label to identify PA businesses and farms.

Non-GMO: This is another one that requires a bit of nuance. Genetically modified is not always bad. The term brings labs and test tubes to mind, but the process has been going on since the mid 1800’s when Gregor Mendel started experimenting with his pea plants. GMO’s uses have been very positive in many instances. In my opinion, the problem began with GMO’s developed to be herbicide resistant. “Round-Up” ready crop varieties dominate grain farming because producers can pour on the herbicide to control weeds without damaging the crop. This led to a massive increase in the amount of herbicide use since the early 90’s. However, GMO free products may not actually be any better for you, farmers using heavy tillage to control weeds

instead of herbicide are causing soil damage and reducing nutrient content in other ways.  I can appreciate the goal of non-GMO organizations, but I think they may be chasing the wrong villain.

Now let’s look at a few chicken specific terms.

Free Range: Ah, my favorite. The claim implies that the chickens ranged freely

outdoors spending their days frolicking in the sunshine. However, producers can make the claim if the birds are given access to an outdoor area, but there are no requirements for the size or condition of the outdoor area or how accessible the outdoor area is to the birds.

Cage Free: This term is only meaningful for eggs. Most, if not all, meat birds are not raised in cages. Large commercial farms use long barns where the birds can wander freely with easy access to food and water. Egg producers, however, may use caged chickens so this could make sense on a carton of eggs.

Pasture Raised: This is a better term, it’s one that we use ourselves, but unfortunately the lack of definitions and regulations means that we’re starting to see this unqualified claim on more grocery store chicken so it’s meaning is quicky being diluted. This can now fall in the same category as “free range.”

And finally…let’s talk about beef.

Grass-fed: OK, here we go. There is a lot of line blurring here, even among farmers. Most cattle raised for beef eat a forage-based diet for the bulk of their lifetime (grass & hay).  Typically, beef animals are “finished” during their last 1-2 months of production with a heavy supplement of grain. This radically speeds up their weight gain and helps them put on the fat, or marbling, preferred in higher quality grades of meat. Some farmers will equivocate that because of this all

beef is technically “grass-fed,” meaning it was the bulk of the cow’s diet. So that use of the term “grass-fed” destroys any distinctions, this is why you are starting to see the term “grass-finished” emerge to indicate that the animal in question never received any grain. So, here’s the rules: The USDA requires beef producers submit a one-time application that documents a “grass-fed” claim with supporting evidence that the animals were never given any grain or grain byproducts. However, there is no requirements for inspections, audits, or annual reviews to enforce compliance. Here’s the other kicker, as high as 85% of the “grass-fed” beef sold in the US is imported, mainly from South America and Australia. So, as you can imagine, there is no meaningful oversight on the use of the term on overseas production. Lastly, a grass-fed claim for dairy products is not verified or defined by the FDA, so it is a meaningless term in that industry.

So, what’s the solution to all of this? Can anything be trusted? As always, the solution is education. You need to understand what these terms mean, but the best solution is to know your farmer! Corporations have tons of money and time to spend on marketing. They are quick to hijack undefined or unregulated terms developed by more conscientious producers who tried to distinguish their farming practices from the mainstream. If environmentally sustainable practices, ethical animal treatment and high quality food is important to you, the best course of action is to find farmers that align with your values and buy directly from them. Relationships and transparency will always trump corporate wordsmithing.

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