Confident home cooking

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.