USA: Labels That Tell You a Little

Labels That Tell You a Little

Many labels describe only one aspect of how a meat or dairy product was produced. Unlike USDA organic, which en-compasses a number of different issues about how the animal was raised, these labels are generally not based on the same kind of certification program to verify the claims. Depending upon what aspects of food production concern you most, these labels may be sufficient. But be careful not to assume that they provide information about anything other than the one practice the labels describe.

cage_freeCage Free” indicates that birds are raised without cages, but does not describe any other living conditions. For instance, cage free eggs could have come from birds raised indoors, in overcrowded conditions, and without access to pasture. USDA has not developed any standards for this label.

Pasture-raised” or “Pastured” indicates that animals were raised on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. This traditional farming method is typically done on a smaller scale than conventionally produced animals. The USDA has not developed any standards for this label, including how much of its life the animal spent on pasture.

In 2007, USDA approved a standard for a “Grass-fed“ label for meat (not dairy). The standard states that, aside from milk consumed prior to weaning, animals must receive 100 percent of their energy from grass or forage and cannot be fed grains such as corn. The standard requires that animals have continuous access to pasture, but only during the growing season. During the off-season, animals may be kept indoors and fed harvested grass or forage. The label does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were administered.

antibiotics_preservativesRaised Without Antibiotics” or “No Antibiotics Administered” indicates that no antibiotics were used over the animal‚ lifetime. Some large,scale producers feed animals antibiotics at low doses to promote growth and prevent disease, which may be linked to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the environment. Other producers use antibiotics only to treat sick animals. Regardless, if an animal receives antibiotics for any reason, its meat, milk or eggs cannot be labeled ‚organic” or ‚raised without antibiotics.” The no-antibiotics labels do not tell you anything about what the animals were fed, or if they had access to pasture, and USDA has not developed any standards for this label.

rBGH-freeThe labels “Raised Without Added Hormones“, “No Hormones Administered” or “No Synthetic Hormones” indicate that no synthetic hormones were given to animals. Federal law prohibits the use of hormones on hogs and poultry. The use of any hormone free label on pork and poultry products is intended to mislead consumers into thinking that the product is different and therefore worthy of a higher price. USDA requires that use of these labels on pork or poultry include the disclaimer: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry/pork.”

However, in the case of beef and dairy cattle, federal regulations do permit the use of hormones. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) is a synthetic growth hormone injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. Several hormones are used for growth promotion in beef cattle.

RBGH-free” or “rBST-free” labels are increasingly used on milk products to indicate that synthetic hormones were not given to the dairy cattle. However, starting in 2007, pressure from Monsanto, the manufacturer of the artificial hormone, led several state agriculture departments and state legislatures to try to restrict the use of this label. Click here to get the latest about the status of the fight to preserve these labels across the country.

Many people notice that the “rBGH-free” label on dairy products is usually accompanied by a disclaimer that the FDA acknowledges no difference between milk produced with or without the hormone. Click here to read more about the legal maneuvering and industry influence that led to that disclaimer.

Hormone-free labels do not disclose what the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture. USDA has not developed standards for the “Raised without Added Hormones” and “No Hormones Administered” labels for beef products.

The “Kosher“ label indicates that the food products were certified by a kosher certification organization (comprised of Rabbis and field supervision specialists) and produced in accordance with Jewish Law. Kosher certification involves the inspection of slaughterhouses, processing facilities, and food ingredients to ensure kosher standards. Kosher certifying organizations also indicate whether the product is fleishig (meat), milchig (dairy) or pareve (neither meat nor dairy), as the separation of meat and dairy is important in the Kosher diet. The label does not tell you anything about what the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture. USDA does not verify use of the Kosher label. Click here to find out more about Kosher.

The “Halal“ label is found on products certified by a Halal certification agency, and produced and handled according to Islamic law, under Islamic authority. Halal certification involves the inspection of food preparation practices, processing facilities, and food ingredients to ensure that Halal standards were met. The label does not reveal anything about what the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture. USDA does not verify use of the “Halal” label. Click here to find out more about Halal.

Misleading Labels

Some labels tell very little about the product or they try to hype something that is already required by law. Food companies use these labels to convince consumers to spend more for products that are essentially the same as their competition.

Raised without added Hormones” in PORK or POULTRY. Federal law prohibits the use of hormones for hogs and poultry, so the use of hormone-free labels on pork and poultry products intentionally misleads consumers by claiming that the product is different and therefore worthy of a higher price.

According to USDA, “Natural” meat and poultry products cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients, and they should be minimally processed. However, “Natural” does not tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed, if antibiotics or hormones were used, or other aspects of production that consumers might logically expect from something labeled “natural.”

Although there is a USDA organic label for meat and produce, there is no such thing for “Organic Seafood”. Buyer beware — this “organic” probably doesn’t mean what you expect. Currently, there is no U.S. government-approved organic seafood. These products are often labeled as “organic” based on criteria set by a private certification company, or in accord with European standards. Neither of these usually equate to U.S. organic standards for other foods.

Another variation that is also misleading is “Naturally Raised.” As of early 2008, the USDA was finishing up standards for this claim that were so weak that the label could allow consumers to be mislead. The USDA proposal for naturally raised requires three things: that the animal be given no growth promoters, no antibiotics, and no food containing animal by,products. Missing from the requirements is any mention of animal welfare — whether animals are confined in factory farms, whether gestation crates or other cruel practices are used, and whether any environmental or conservation issues are addressed on the farm.

The label “Fresh” is used on poultry to indicate that the meat was not cooled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit (six degrees below freezing). Poultry does not have to be labeled as “frozen” until it reaches zero degrees. USDA meat inspectors monitor the use of this label to ensure the standards are met. But this can be misleading to customers who presume that “fresh” implies that meat has not been frozen, processed or preserved in any way. The USDA does not define or regulate the use of this label on any other type of meat or dairy products.freerange

Free Range” is a label regulated by USDA only for poultry produced for meat (not eggs). The label can be used if the animal had some access to the outdoors each day for some unspecified period of time (it could be just a few minutes). It does not assure that the animal ever actually went outdoors to roam freely. “Free range” is not regulated for pigs, cattle or egg-producing chickens.

Before You Hit the Grocery Store

  1. Rank your priorities.Are you most concerned about animal welfare, antibiotic and hormone use, animal feed, access to pasture, family farm vs. agribusiness, labor standards, how far the food traveled, or something else entirely? You may not be able to find the perfect product that meets all of your ideals, but you can minimize the paralysis that results from label, reading overload by prioritizing which is the most important to you.
  2. If you can, buy local and direct!If you can’t find products that fit your list of requirements at the grocery store, get creative by buying local and direct from the farmer. Buying direct means you don’t have to rely on labels and packing to tell you how the animals were raised — you can ask the person who raised them. There are a growing number of ways to buy direct from producers:
  • Check out the Eat Well Guide for listings of where to find sustainably produced meat and dairy products.
  • Sustainable Table has lists of questions to ask producers about how they raise their animals.
  • The USDA has a website you can use to find a farmers market near you.As the demand increases, more farmers markets are starting to carry meat, dairy and eggs produced locally, usually by small farmers.