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How Much do Labels Really Tell You?

How Much do Labels Really Tell You?



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This fact sheet is designed to go behind the scenes of the food industry to explain what labels really tell you (or don’t tell you).
This fact sheet is designed to go behind the scenes of the food industry to explain what labels really tell you (or don’t tell you).

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Published by: Food and Water Watch on May 28, 2013
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How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?
Unfortunately, not all labels are created equal. The increas-ingly abundant information and claims on food labelsshould help us navigate the maze of choices, but, in reality,they often leave us wondering just how to sort it all out.This guide is designed to help by going behind the scenes toexplain what these labels really tell you (or don't tell you).Before we get into specifics about the different labels yousee on meat, dairy and eggs, here are a few general recom-mendations:
Some labels describe one aspect of meat or dairyproducts (“cage free”) while others make multipleclaims, typically through a certification program(“organic”). The only government certification is theU.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal.
Althoughprivate programs also certify meat and dairy products,the quality of their standards can vary. For example,some private animal welfare certifications are operatedby advocacy organizations that select advisory boardsto establish detailed standards, while other animalwelfare labels are less forthcoming about the basis fortheir label. This variation means that consumers have todo their homework in order to distinguish between foodproduced using sustainable methods and products of industrial agriculture that might be trying to cash in onconsumers' good intentions.So if a grocery chain or food brand claims that itsproduct is approved by some agency or meets someimpressive-sounding standard, go to the company'swebsite and look for more information. Find out whosponsors the certifying agency and consider potentialconflicts of interest with the funding sources. Look tosee if the standards are well explained. If not, contactthe customer service department and request the certifi-cation criteria.· 
In addition to researching labels, it's importantto prioritize which aspects of meat, dairy and eggproduction are most important to you.
Do you careabout animal welfare, antibiotic and hormone use,access to pasture, farm size, food miles, labor stan-dards or all of the above? Look for the labels that willguide you to products that best match your priorities.This may not result in the perfect product that meetsall of your ideals, but it should help you minimize theparalysis that results from label-reading overload.
A few pieces of information are common to all meat,dairy and egg product packaging:
All USDA-inspected meat and poultry (the vastmajority of the meat in grocery stores) should have aUSDA seal of inspection and a code for the produc-ing establishment.
hich eggs should I buy for my family — “cage free” “free range” or“natural”? What about beef — “organic,” “hormone free,” or “grass fed”?If you feel overwhelmed by the growing number of labels on meat and dairyproducts in grocery stores, you are not alone. Driven by consumers' growingconcern about food safety, the food industry is labeling its products with moreand more claims about how it produces what we eat.
(from left)
USDA inspection marks for carcasses, meat prod-ucts and poultry.
Many meat and egg labels have a grade (suchas USDA Grade A beef or Jumbo eggs). This is aquality ranking performed by USDA employees orby company employees under USDA supervision.Product grades give information about the qualityand size of the product, not how it was produced.This guide divides common labels for meat, dairy and eggsinto three categories according to how much informationthey provide.
Labels That Tell You a Lot —Both Good and Bad
The majority of labeling confusion could be avoided if thegovernment established labeling requirements and certifiedthat producers met the standards beforethe label could be used. But to date,the USDA organic seal is the onlylabel for meat, dairy and eggs withthat level of government involve-ment.The
USDA Organic
seal is one labelto look for. For a product to wear thegreen USDA organic seal, it must meetthe following standards: ·Crops cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers,synthetic chemicals or sewage sludge. ·Crops cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. ·Animals must be fed only organically grown feed(without animal byproducts) and cannot be treatedwith synthetic hormones or antibiotics. ·Animals must have access to the outdoors, andruminants (hoofed animals) must have access topasture. (The enforcement of this standard is actuallythe subject of much controversy within the organicmovement, especially for dairy cows.)·Animals cannot be cloned.One label to look for — and avoid buy-ing products with it — is “
TreatedWith Irradiation
.” In retail stores,food that has been irradiated mustbe labeled and marked with aradura symbol. Unfortunately, thislabeling policy does not apply torestaurants, schools, hospitals orprocessed foods containing irradi-ated ingredients.The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agencyresponsible for labeling irradiated food, has been underintense industry pressure to weaken labeling rules and al-low the use of “pasteurization” in place of “irradiation.” In2007, the FDA announced a proposal to make this change,but as of early 2008 the agency had not yet changed therules. For now, the irradiation label is one that clearly alertsconsumers of foods to avoid. For reasons to oppose foodirradiation, visit
Labels That Tell You A Little
Many labels describe only one aspect of how a meat ordairy product was produced. Unlike USDA organic, whichencompasses a number of different issues about how theanimal was raised, these labels are generally not based onthe same kind of certification program to verify the claims.Depending upon what aspects of food production concernyou most, these labels may be sufficient. But be careful notto assume that they provide information about anythingother than the one practice the labels describe.
Cage Free
” indicates that birds are raised without cages,but it does not describe any other living conditions. Forinstance, cage-free eggs could have come from birds raisedindoors, in overcrowded conditions, and without accessto pasture. The USDA has not developed any standards forthis label.
” or “
” indicates that animals wereraised on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. This tradi-tional farming method is typically done on a smaller scalethan conventionally produced animals. The USDA hasnot developed any standards for this label, including howmuch of its life the animal spent on pasture.In 2007, the USDA approved a standard for a “
label for meat (not dairy). The standard states that, asidefrom milk consumed prior to weaning, animals must re-ceive 100 percent of their energy from grass or forage andcannot be fed grains such as corn. The standard requiresthat animals have continuous access to pasture, but onlyduring the growing season. During the off-season, animalsmay be kept indoors and fed harvested grass or forage.The label does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones wereadministered.
Raised Without Antibiotics
” or “
No Antibiotics Admin-istered
” indicates that no antibiotics were used over theanimal's lifetime. Some large-scale producers feed animalsantibiotics at low doses to promote growth and preventdisease, which may be linked to the spread of antibiotic-
resistant bacteria in the environment. Other producersuse antibiotics only to treat sick animals. Regardless, if ananimal receives antibiotics for any reason, its meat, milkor eggs cannot be labeled “organic” or “raised without anti-biotics.” The no-antibiotics labels do not tell you anythingabout what the animals were fed, or if they had access topasture, and USDA has not developed any standards forthis label.The labels “
Raised Without Added Hormones
,” “
NoHormones Administered
” or “
No Synthetic Hormones
indicate that no synthetic hormones were given to animals.Federal law prohibits the use of hormones on hogs andpoultry. The use of any hormone-free label on pork andpoultry products is intended to mislead consumers intothinking that the product is different and therefore worthyof a higher price. The USDA requires that use of theselabels on pork or poultry include the disclaimer: “Federalregulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry/pork.”However, in the case of beef and dairy cattle, federalregulations do permit the use of hormones. Recombinantbovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) isa synthetic growth hormone injected into dairy cattle toincrease milk production. Several hormones are used forgrowth promotion in beef cattle.
” or “
” labels are increasingly usedon milk products to indicate that synthetic hormones werenot given to the dairy cattle. However, starting in 2007,pressure from Monsanto, the manufacturer of the artificialhormone, led several state agriculture departments andstate legislatures to try to restrict the use of this label. It tookseveral years of grassroots efforts and lawsuits to block theattempted restrictions on rBGH-free labels.Many people notice that the “rBGH-free” label on dairyproducts is usually accompanied by a disclaimer that theFDA acknowledges no difference between milk producedwith or without the hormone. For more information aboutthe legal maneuvering and industry influence that led tothat disclaimer, visit
.Hormone-free labels do not disclose what the animalswere fed or if they had access to pasture. The USDA hasnot developed standards for the “Raised without AddedHormones” and “No Hormones Administered” labels forbeef products.The “
” label indicates that the food products werecertified by a kosher certification organization (comprisingof Rabbis and field supervision specialists) and produced inaccordance with Jewish Law. Kosher certification involvesthe inspection of slaughterhouses, processing facilities andfood ingredients to ensure kosher standards. Kosher cer-tifying organizations also indicate whether the product isfleishig (meat), milchig (dairy) or pareve (neither meat nordairy), as the separation of meat and dairy is important inthe Kosher diet. The label does not tell you anything aboutwhat the animals were fed or if they had access to pasture.USDA does not verify use of the Kosher label.The “
” label is found on products certified by a Halalcertification agency, and produced and handled accordingto Islamic law, under Islamic authority. Halal certificationinvolves the inspection of food preparation practices, pro-cessing facilities, and food ingredients to ensure that Halalstandards were met. The label does not reveal anythingabout what the animals were fed or if they had access topasture. The USDA does not verify use of the “Halal” label.
Some labels tell very little about the product, or they try tohype something that is already required by law. Food com-panies use these labels to convince consumers to spendmore for products that are essentially the same as theircompetition.
Raised Without Added Hormones
” labels are misleadingwhen placed on
. Federal law prohibits theuse of hormones for hogs and poultry. The use of hormone-free labels on pork and poultry products intentionally mis-leads consumers by claiming that the product is differentand therefore worthy of a higher price.According to USDA, “
” meat and poultry productscannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preserva-tives or other artificial ingredients, and they should beminimally processed. However, “Natural” does not tell ushow the animals were raised, what they were fed, if antibi-otics or hormones were used, or other aspects of produc-tion that consumers might logically expect from somethinglabeled “natural.”Another variation that is also misleading is “
” In 2009, USDA released standards for this vol-untary claim that are so weak that the label could allowconsumers to be misled. The USDA proposal for naturallyraised requires three things: that the animal be given no

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