The Truth Behind Food Labels

The Truth Behind Food Labels

It can be confusing trying to make sense of all the environmental claims plastered on food products lining grocery store aisles.

By Gretel H. Schueller/Photograph by Stephen Wilkes
Published: March-April 2011

Certified Humane Raised and Handled 
This certification, endorsed by several animal welfare and food safety organizations, including the ASPCA, focuses on humane animal care standards, from birth through slaughter. For example, animals must be free to move about and 
"engage in natural behavior." This means that chickens have room to flap their wings and pigs have space to move around and root. Cages, crates, and tie stalls are prohibited, as is the use of growth hormones and prophylactic antibiotics.

This is a three-tier system of color-coded  labels that ranks seafood products according to sustainability criteria. The catch location and the fishing method--longline or hook and line--are also included on the label. FishWise is a program from Sustainable Fishery Advocates, a nonprofit founded by two graduate students in the Ocean Sciences Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Its researchers work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to evaluate sustainability. Each report is externally reviewed for scientific content and accuracy.

Non-GMO Project Verified 
This seal, one of the newer labels on food shelves, grew out of the public's frustration that GMO foods do not require labeling in the United States. Although many products have touted GMO-free claims, there's been little consistency in the labeling and scant assurance that the products were actually tested. Foods carrying the label are made following "best practices of GMO avoidance," claims the nonprofit. (Because of cross-contamination and pollen drift, it can't guarantee that a food is entirely free of genetically modified ingredients.) Certification also requires genetic testing, to guarantee that a product contains no more than 0.9 percent biotech material. That's the same threshold as in Europe, where GMO labeling is required. 

Healthy Grown Potatoes
Many farmers are primed to make a change from conventional farming but aren't ready to go completely organic, much less sustainable on multiple fronts. For starters, they might try to avoid the most harmful pesticides. That's what a group of Wisconsin potato growers decided after an especially toxic chemical called aldicarb started showing up in the local groundwater. Working with the University of Wisconsin, the World Wildlife Fund, the International Crane Foundation, and Defenders of Wildlife, the growers adopted a plan to reduce their overall use of chemicals and eliminate the highly toxic ones. To earn this certification, farmers must also restore some of their farmland to prairie or wetlands.


Buyer Beware
Many of the environmental claims are riddled with loopholes. Compounding the confusion is that numerous foods are regulated by different or multiple government agencies. The following labels are weaker. 

Raised Without Antibiotics 
Some industry experts are adamant that "no antibiotics" should mean no antibiotics--at any stage of production. Often, however, that's not the case. One of the most egregious examples: Tyson Foods, the second-largest U.S. chicken producer, was labeling some of its chickens as "raised without antibiotics" despite the fact that it was injecting the eggs with an antibiotic and was using a non-human one in its chicken feed on a daily basis. After several lawsuits, Tyson removed all antibiotic claims. While "no antibiotics administered" and "raised without antibiotics" are considered acceptable by the USDA, there is no verification system in place--which is what enables a company like Tyson to make false claims. The specific "antibiotic free" claim is considered "unapprovable" by the USDA.

This is one of the most egregiously abused labels, since it doesn't have to mean anything. And yet in the supermarket it's lumped together with "organic." The USDA has defined the term only for use on fresh meat. In this case, it is defined as nothing added to the cut of meat itself. As a result, you could have a cloned animal eating genetically modified food and being fed antibiotics every day and the product could still be labeled "natural."

Free Range 
When it comes to "free range" and "free roaming," all a poultry farmer needs to show is "that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside," according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. The animals may get only short periods outside in a cramped area--the USDA considers five minutes adequate to approve use of the claim. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Such inhumane practices as forced molting through starvation--to increase egg production and therefore profitability--are permitted. There is no third-party auditing. Lax regulation has allowed producers to keep animals closely confined, even if they're not actually in cages. When it comes to beef and egg-laying hens, the term is completely unregulated. 

United Egg Producers Certified 
The logo, devised by the United Egg Producers, falsely implies that the chickens have been treated humanely. Think cramped cages, starvation-based molting, dehydrated birds, denial of veterinary care. (This designation replaces the even more misleading Animal Care Certified, which was banned by the Federal Trade Commission.)

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