Labels 101 

Navigating the label labyrinth

Truth in advertising. Buyer beware. Conflicting creeds indeed. In this day and age, where profit seeking and consumer manipulation reign, it is difficult to know what to believe when it comes to buying food. Ask any manufacturer and they can quickly and concisely say why their product is the perfect product for you.

In theory, labels should educate consumers, but first consumers must educate themselves about the label's fine print, or lack thereof--what is not said speaks volumes about the product's quality. First and foremost, know that most label terms, except "organic," are unregulated and loosely defined by the producer--and semantics, euphemisms, twisted words and little white lies are all part of the game.

ORGANIC

In October 2002 new USDA organic food label standards went into effect. But be wary consumer, the mere appearance of the word organic does not guarantee the product is 100 percent organic.

USDA organic terms:

100% Organic: Must contain only organically produced ingredients.

Organic: At least 95 percent of the product's ingredients must be organic.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. These foods cannot display the USDA seal.

Some Organic Ingredients: Products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term organic anywhere on the main package panel. They may individually list the organically produced ingredients on the information panel. These foods cannot display the USDA seal.

USDA organic standards:

Organic fruits and vegetables must be grown without synthetic chemicals, cannot be irradiated, contain any genetically modified organisms and use any sewage sludge.

Organic meats must be fed 100 percent organically grown feed with no animal by products (a must for mad cow concerns) and must not receive any hormones or antibiotics. They must not be confined in cages or pens and must have continuous access to the outdoors.

In addition, anything labeled organic must have the name and address of the certifying agent on the product label.

NATURAL

Of all the food labels this is most used and least meaningful. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. A product can be free-range, hormone-free and natural, but it is not organic.

According to the USDA "natural" in relation to meat and poultry products means no artificial ingredients or colors, and minimal processing, like grinding, smoking or freezing. Using this formula, every cut of raw beef can be labeled "natural" regardless of what the animal ingested or how it was housed during the course of its life.

FREE-RANGE or CAGE-FREE

Both of these terms are loosely regulated. For cattle and sheep the USDA defines free-range as never being confined to a feedlot, for swine at least 80 percent of their production cycle must be in a pasture, but there are no requirements on pasture condition or size. The USDA basic requirement for free-range poultry is that the birds have some access to the outdoors, but there is no requirement on how much space or how much time. For example, a chicken turned out for 20 minutes a day into a 4-foot-by-4-foot pen attached to the side of a building can still be considered free-range.

GRASS-FED OR PASTURE-FED

The only time this label has much value is if the term "100%" precedes it or the word "finished" follows it. There are no regulations on how long an animal must feed on grass to be called "grass-fed." Nearly all cattle eat grass at some point in their lives, but many are "finished" at large feedlots where they eat high-calorie diets of corn and grain the final weeks of their lives. The same applies to pasture-fed. Grass-finished or pasture-finished means the animal ate grass or was in a pasture up until the time it went to the slaughterhouse. Only animals raised and finished in grass pastures can offer true grass-fed benefits. Unless the consumer deliberately chooses grass-finished or 100 percent free-range meat, the beef will likely be of the corn-finished feedlot variety. Feedlot cattle cannot be grass-fed cattle and vice versa.

In light of loose label definitions and a quagmire of dubious terms, a "certified organic" label is undoubtedly the safest route, but organic food often costs 5 to 50 percent more than its nonorganic counterparts and is not as readily available.

The best solution, for those with oodles of time of their hands, is to contact each producer and clarify their claims. But, more realistically, get very selective about where you buy your food, find a few brands or producers you trust and stick with them. If shopping at a farmer's market or fruit stand, ask questions. Pesticide-free produce and pesticide-residue-free produce are not the same thing. When buying meat, ask questions that include the words "never" and "entire lives."

Look for the labeling loopholes, because producers are definitely utilizing them. Remember, skepticism is a virtue.

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