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On Food Labeling

by Nick

If there’s one thing that frustrates me more than any other at the grocery store these days, it’s the labeling on meat products. There are so many stickers and labels that it’s almost impossible to tell how quality any specific piece of meat is or where it has come from.

Some of the definitions are worse than others though and seem to be made by the USDA with the exclusive purpose of confusing people. It’s very (very) hard to find the origins of these definitions. They are probably the results of countless hours in conference rooms and who knows how many millions of lobbying dollars.

So I wanted to take a day and write about the labels on meat products. This might be information you already know, but the more it’s discussed and written about, the more there is a likelihood for change.

In no particular order:

Natural – This is always in huge letters on a lot of supermarket packaging. Unfortunately, it’s essentially meaningless. To be labeled as natural, the meat can have “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” So it says nothing about what happened to the meat prior to processing. You could inject a live chicken with poison everyday and as long as you didn’t add artificial ingredients to it while processing it, it’s natural.

Also, as of 2006 saline solution (salt water basically) is considered natural so even natural meats can be pumped full of it. Although, I do believe that now processors have to indicate what percentage of the weight is due to solution on the packaging, but it’s in very small print, always smaller than the word NATURAL.

Free Range – This has been a fad term for awhile now. To be able to label your product with this term, you just have to “demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” In practice this means that barns with tens of thousands of chickens will have one tiny open door on one side of the barn.

The definition is obviously a deceptive one. “Allowed access to the outside” implies that the chickens are normally kept inside – the exact opposite of what comes to mind when I think of Free Range.

Fresh - Any poultry or meat that always maintains an internal temperature above 26 degrees Fahrenheit. So yea… you can have a frozen fresh turkey.

Cage Free - Similar to free range in that it doesn’t mean much. You can have a cage free poultry facility and still have the chickens live in incredibly close proximity.

Grass Fed – I wasn’t able to find a definition on the USDA site for this phrase, but here is some more information on it. Because there is no official definition, there are lots of different definitions. For example, you can have a grass fed steer that eats grain for the last 150 days of its life. “Grass finished” beef means it ate grass throughout its life. Go figure.

In general though, grass fed also implies but doesn’t necessarily mean that the cow was not raised on a major feed lot.

No Antibiotics/No Hormones – These definitions actually seem to mean what they say. Products can be labeled with these terms if “sufficient documentation” (whatever that is) has been supplied to the Agency proving that the animals were not subjected to these things.

Organic – The latest and greatest of labels. The label is regulated by the National Organic Program and basically certifies producers who don’t use a wide list of “non-organic” products while raising or processing their products. There are a huge number of things that can’t be used while processing foods labeled “Organic.” In fact, here is the full database. What’s troubling is the fact that all of these things have to be listed means that there are other food products most likely being processed with them.

And now for the frustrating part… So it seems like the organic label is a good thing. It conveys real information to the consumer. But here’s the rub. For some reason (again I’m gonna guess lobbying), the USDA created a new term “100% organic”. This means that to be “organic” you really only have to be 95% organic which, sorry, kinds of defeats the purpose in my book. If I told you something was “Toxin free” would you assume that it was 100% toxin free or 95% toxin free? Why not call it “semi-organic?” Well… because that wouldn’t be as marketable obviously. Unfortunately, the “organic” label could mean that you don’t get what you pay for.

I tried to think about why these various, loosely defined labels were created and I was only able to come up with two possibilities: 1) regulators don’t trust us to make decisions based on data, so they give terms to the data and tell us which terms are theoretically better than others or B) they are trying to hide the underlying data from us. I don’t really have a view on which one of those is more likely because it doesn’t really matter.

At the end of the day, we aren’t getting the information we need to make informed decisions.

So if I could magically wave a wand of truth and change the labeling procedures for meat in the U.S., these are a few I would want on the packaging. My goal with these is to give the consumer actual facts rather than loosely defined labels.

Average Living Space: The approximate average area that the animal lived in during its life. If a chicken is kept in a barn with a door for its entire life, then the area is still very small even if it is “free range” by definition. I think this would actually make regulation a lot easier and more transparent. It would be near impossible to move 300,000 chickens into a larger area when a regulator rolled through, but it’s fairly straightforward to open a barn door.

Diet: What did my food eat as food? Tell me please. I’m dying to know.

Hormones/Antibiotics? Circle one: YES/NO.

Raised at… Where did my dinner call home? Where did my turkey hang its hat?

Processed at… on… Where was this meat processed and on what day? I don’t want to know the sell-by date. I want to know when it was slaughtered. Also, I don’t buy that it’s impossible to track meat back to processing. I can get to-the-minute updates on a package sent from China. Figure it out people.

Organic: Again, it’s a yes or no question in my mind.

What would these labels mean? Well, it would probably mean that meat costs would go up. Producers would try to present the most positive facts for consumers so that we would buy their meat and that would mean it would be more expensive to produce and also, most likely, a lot higher quality.

But isn’t that the goal?

I’ll put my magic wand of truth away now and go back to looking up incredibly vague definitions.

The definitions in this post were taken largely from the official food labeling fact sheet which was updated… wait for it… almost four years ago.

Photo by bmann.

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30 comments on “On Food Labeling

  1. Hey Nick! Thanks for all the info! You should really check out the movie Food Inc. It goes into all the underlying issues of the food industry and puts it in perspective!

  2. I guess when people leave the door open, I can now say, "were you raised on a free-range chicken farm?"

    I'm also curious about quality labels like Prime, Choice or Select–how do those come to be?

    1. Hey Andrew, those are grades that USDA regulators give to different cuts of beef. They generally reflect things like marbling and fat content in the meat. Only a certain % of all the meat can give given a PRIME grade, but having a PRIME grade doesn’t reflect in any way on the conditions in which the animal was raised or anything like that. You can read more about it here: USDA Inspection and Grading of Meat.

      I also like how all the grades are deceptively similar and positive. Is “Select” better than “Prime”? Both sound positive to me, but you’ll find a much larger price tag on one than the other.

  3. I have been sourcing a lot of local meats now that I have been in the US for a few months and gotten the hang of things. Many of the farms here in Western Massachusetts have trouble getting the organic certification. I don’t really mind because I know the farmers, I see the animals on the pasture when I go to pick up the meat, and I can taste and smell the grass fed nature of the beef. It just makes me wonder, are there a lot of hoops to jump through to be truly labeled organic? After reading some of the farms websites, it seems that they don’t really care about the label or it would cost them extra money to get it. One of the farms says if you buy the turkey before they kill it, it is certified organic, but if you buy it after, it isn’t. They still use the same slaughterhouse either way! I wonder if the farms have to pay a premium just for the label and therefore small family farms don’t bother.

  4. As a small food producer that has gone through the USDA Organic Certification Process I can say from experience that this is a very complicated area. It is possible to by-pass all this confusion by becoming a consumer of “local food.”

    If quality and food safety are your issues then buying from a local small company is your best place to start. Anyone can call us up — we have a consumer hot-line phone number that actually rings to a live person — Isn’t technology swell? Try getting that level of service even at Whole Foods.

    If the quality of your meat is such an issue — why not establish a relationship with a local farmer. Want to know what the pig was fed for their “Last Supper?” — it’s easy to get the answers.

    Problem is most of those reading these types of posts are looking for the convenience — while demanding exacting information to suit their beliefs and needs. For those that seek the truth about their food — BUY LOCAL FROM PEOPLE YOU KNOW.

    Nick sometimes writes about eating less meat – imagine gettng in a Zipcar and visiting the closest farm everytime you want a Tenderloin of Beef, some Ribs, Veal………

    The USDA Organic Certification process is a worthwhile benchmark, it’s only a starting point. Become educated and share your information — help us small producers with some “viral marketing” — And just because you buy locally doesn’t mean to by-pass common sense. If a producer says something is organic and it’s not certified — then how do you know?

    As Scully and Muldur used to say — “The Truth Is Out There”

    1. Thanks Kevin for the thoughtful reply. Buying local is definitely a solution. There’s really no better way to get in touch with your food.

  5. @Nick, Great post. I know that you are faced with a mountain of different labels, standards, loopholes, lobbying and gerneral bull crap that surrounds all of that. Again, I state the first law of Italian Cuisine: Pay Attention. Find out where your food comes from, how? Buy local.

    I do not think the days are too far gone to actually get to know your butcher/farmer and to buy a cow or half. (Split with your friends.) You then have the ultimate control on what you have. Perhaps it is worth checking out in your area if there is something like that.

    Also, Nick, and everyone else. Write to your polititians and tell them it is not acceptable. That is the key.

    1. Hey Jason, there are various farms in the DC/VA area where that is an option. I’m researching it for myself now and will post my experience.

  6. @Kevin- I had to laugh because my last name is Scully ;)

    @Nick-
    I am very confused by all the labelling out there in the crazy world of supermarkets, so thank you Nick for clarifying some of it for me! I was just looking up a local meat supplier yesterday for the Seattle area (Thundering Hooves), they have basically everything I want to know about the animal(s) on their website which is great. Also, the local meat supplier’s prices seem VERY close to what the supermarkets charge (not including those super ‘special’ sales where your meat is like 89cents/lb, which freak me out really), plus if you do a neighborhood buying club you simply find a delivery site, just like you do for a veggie CSA, and you save on driving and shipping fees!! GREAT wya to support the local farms and know what the heck is going into your body, your kids’ bodies, and your pets if you treat them to some of the meat/goods :)

    Great post!!

  7. @Kevin: I’m not clear how buying local is a solution. On the one hand, local purveyors are more accessible than big firms, so it may be easier to ask them questions. On the other hand, it could be more difficult to verify what local purveyors tell you, because the government would have an even harder time regulating chitchat at the local farmer’s market than it does regulating labels on food containers. If we stretch our imagination, can’t we envision local farmers sometimes using the same word games as industrial farmers use to persuade us that their meat is A-OK? Consumers won’t know who to trust.

    I think Nick’s post was on the right track. More sensible regulation of food labels will give consumers reliable information about their food, and moreover it would do so on a large scale. We should not pretend that buying local is going to solve that problem.

    1. Jeff, I think one thing that can make local producers better sources is they are directly responsible for their products. If you get bad meat from a local farm, it’s traceable to them which is not the case with large providers.

      I agree that there is nothing inherently better about local over non-local if it can be traced to a source and the same basic information is provided about each.

      In reality though, it’s a lot easier to find that information on a local level.

  8. Great info Nick. I was forwarded this article and can vouch for the accuracy. Bottom line…we need to develop a real relationship with our small producers. Eatwild.com and the westonaprice.org are great source of info. Getting connected is the real solution to our current crisis.

  9. Nick,

    I felt compelled to send a response on this subject. Food and agriculture are not only subjects I’m intensely interested in, they also keep me employed (by a certain agency mentioned above however I am NOT in any way responding as an employee). As a farmer’s daughter, a former food safety specialist, and a wannabe chef, I think it is my responsibility to educate as many people as possible about where the food on their plate actually comes from. In doing so, I have found that the majority of people really don’t want to know. Granted, there are the few out there who do. However, the general public seems to only be concerned with having an abundance of inexpensive, safe food. For those who are especially interested, I agree with previous posts — buy your food from someone locally and visit their farm/slaugherhouse to see for yourself what you are actually getting. I guarantee you’ll be enlightened and (hopefully) will become an advocate for your local farmers/ranchers.

    On a related note — Organic isn’t just a label. It’s a comprehensive approach to farming and food production. To quote J.I. Rodale, “Gardening organically is much more than what you don’t do. When you garden organically, you think of your plants as part of a whole system…that starts in the soil and includes the water supply, people, wildlife, and even insects.” So when you buy those organic products in the grocery store, know that they are really much more than what you are putting in your mouth.

  10. I feel like a lot of these issues would fall by the wayside if the people were simply allowed to hunt their own wild cows. But alas…

  11. Nick,

    What a great post! I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. While I’m certainly not made of money, I’d be willing to pay a bit extra for animals that I thought had been raised in humane conditions, and not treated with crazy chemicals. But it drives me crazy trying to understand what the supermarket labels mean! I have no idea whether to buy cage free eggs, free range eggs, or whether it’s just hopeless, because they don’t mean anything at all! It sounds like the “100% organic” label does really mean something, but I’m wondering, does that mean anything about the living condition of the animals, or only what they are fed/injected with? I like your idea of having “living space” and “diet” listed. I’d also like to know what percentage of their lives the animals spent outdoors, and whether they were de-hoofed/clawed/beaked/feathered early on in life, long before slaughter…

  12. Great write-up.

    One thing i’m always shocked is that the makers of beer & alcohol products don’t even have to have an ingredients list?

    Oh, and i always like to point out that kraft singles do not need to be refrigerated. Although they appear in the coolers next to the other real cheeses. Marketing :)

    I’m ready for the USA’s food revolution.

  13. Nick – Wonderful article and so important to be pointed out!
    Your post basically sums up why I stopped eating meat – I just couldn’t trust where my food was coming from. After watching Food Inc, I am more careful about fruits and veggies as well.

  14. A thoughtful post on a hot-button issue . . . while I agree that sourcing meat locally is a solution to these issues (what about giving up meat altogether?), I also agree w/Drina that most people just don’t care that much about this stuff. So I think that labels for the masses need to get better and that education efforts need to increase. Unfortunately, a lot of this debate is being looked upon as an obsession of the well-to-do, and not as a macro-level health & economic issue. I know someone who referred dismissively to Michael Pollan’s books and views as “cult-ish.” A single mom of multiple kids working multiple jobs is not going to locally-source her ground beef – she just doesn’t want her family to get sick.

  15. I’m so with you on the questions that aren’t asked…. or at least asked but we’re not told the results of that survey.

  16. @Nick: I disagree that local producers are somehow “more responsible” for their products, or less sensitive to branding issues. In fact, large-scale producers and especially retailers are much more sensitive to branding issues, which is why they invest so heavily in it. Think about it: if you buy a piece of meat from Safeway that has maggots, you might get the newspaper to take it up, because everyone cares about the quality of meat at Safeway. But if Frank the Local sells you maggot-infested meat and you tell your friends about it, he can just go to the farmers market in Glen Burnie next weekend. The point is that brands matter much more to vendors dealing with mass markets than vendors dealing with fractured, local markets.

    As to your point about finding out information, I disagree again for the reasons in my previous post. When you’re dealing with local vendors, you have greater access to the people who give information, but you lack the expertise and resources of the government to verify the information you get. So there’s no a priori reason to think the information you get is more reliable just because it comes from someone who lives in a 150-mile radius.

    1. The difference is, if Safeway sells you bad meat, they will still survive. But Frank the Local can’t afford to smooth things over the way Safeway can. His reputation and his livelihood are on the line each and every time he sets up at the farmers market, and he knows that he can’t afford either bad press or someone getting sick. Frank has liability insurance just like everyone else at the farmers market, and can be trusted. If you buy bad meat at Safeway, though, there’s absolutely no telling which farm that bad steak came from.

    2. For those unaware, Jeff and I have had this debate back and forth for many hours…

      On your first paragraph regarding brand, it’s false to assume that word wouldn’t spread about a local producer’s products. Also, the fact that these large companies invest so much money in “Branding” but won’t actually let a consumer into the factories scares me. “branding” is the problem. The brands are not based on any actual facts about the quality of the meat. I can walk onto many local farms and see the process start to finish. Perdue would have me arrested.

      And to answer your second paragraph, I trust myself much more to judge the quality of something over loosely defined regulatory phrases. The reason I would think that information is more reliable is because the local farmer’s door isn’t locked. They are always happy to share and talk about these issues (heck… look at the local farmers that have commented on this post!)

  17. Honestly — this is exactly why I’ve gotten to the point of buying my meat directly from the farmer, in most cases. We don’t eat much of it, but when we do I’d really like to know what I’m buying. When I do buy from a co-op or grocer, I tend to ask plenty of questions… if I get the idea that they buy carelessly, or that they don’t really know their producers, they don’t get my business.

    Great discussion going on here!

  18. Excellent article! I am a grass based cattle rancher in Texas, and no, not organic. Unfortunately, “Certified Organic” has three levels and at the highest “cert”, cattle are still confined in feedlots (they have to be fed organic grain/stuffs). The plain fact is that it is the feedlot system (and grain based diet) that causes the E.coli issue as well as a host of other ailments/infections/diseases…Cattle are not designed to eat grains, they have a digestive system that is meant for grazing….grass. So, when you force feed grains (and you will not believe what else they are fed in the lots) you create high levels of acidity in the bovine digestive tract….a breeding ground for E.coli and a perfect host for other nasty little germs, whic, often get passed along in the meat. This leads to anti-biotic treatments, which causes the bacteria to develope resistance, needing higher doses of medicine……..a vicious circle!

    Almost all of this is avoided through grass fed, pasture raised, free ranging, etc, etc.

  19. @Sarah – I think that if the single mom was educated about where to go, and who or where to look for, she would do the best for her kids. I know this because my wife did the best for my son based on what all the books/doctor said.

    In that we see the key. we are led to believe that a simple label will wash away all the sins of the producers. While something may be labeled grass fed – how about the way it is transported? How about the slaughter conditions? How about the packing/handling, trim and other misc effects?

    People may not want to know about that, and I understand completely. What I don;t understand is the trust in a blanket system where the hand self feeds the mouth. A lot of the so-called strict regulations can be circumvented by loopholes. Perfectly legal, maybe not safe though.

    I don’t want labels that are convoluted. I think that getting back to the spirit of food from days gone by is the best way. Knowing the butcher (who is hopefully not just out of high school! True story!) is the key.

    We may want cheaper meat/produce, but it all comes to a cost that is frightening. What is more scary is that eating better is more expensive than the mass produced junk. Can someone tell me why I am paying something like 50 cents a kilogram for coka cola when the same kilogram of meat is around 6 to 14 dollars? Coca Cola is corn syrup, water, colors and “flavors” that is carbonated. The other is a life.

    Why then do we not put meat back to where it belongs? Instead of cheap, crappy meat, buy the more expensive meat – and take care of it. Make it last and it wil become cheaper than the crap.

  20. Nick, it’s hard for me to understand how you can advocate for better labels for food on the one hand, and then on the other hand suggest that buying local is a solution to the problem posed by having bad labels. If buying local is the solution, then who cares about food labels? And if better labels solves the problem, then who cares about buying local?

    1. Better labels are near impossible though. People have been advocating for better labels for years… it miles of red tape and millions of dollars to get a simple label for beef changed. I mean.. the USDA official label site hasn’t been updated in FOUR YEARS….

      So one way around it is to buy local where you can be a step closer to the producer. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. It also puts pressure on the large companies to change.

      If there were better labels and the labels were useful, then yes, the difference in local vs. large scale would be smaller.

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