FOOD LABELS- What do they really tell us?
The newest scientific development in relation to food is meat grown in laboratories. Manufactured natural skin from tissue cultures is commercially available. Chances are these processes will generate their own problems but they are well worth tackling, compared to the self- serving and callous way in which we allow animals to be factory farmed for human consumption. Chickens are herded tightly together in caves continuously lit to mimic day light, pumped with hormones that speed growth and antibiotics that control disease. Cattle are sprayed, given hormones and antibiotics from the moment they enter the world or a breeding facility. Selective breeding is justifiable, but feeding animals grains (like cheap GMO corn) that cause inflammation and then countering that with antibiotics and anti-bloating meds, is unhealthy and good only for saving money, not life. Making a concerted effort to avoid such foods is difficult owing to the manipulation of labels.
When it comes to farmed products, navigating the labels in a few well regulated countries is far easier than in most. USDA (United States Dept of Agriculture) ORGANIC is a gold standard, transparent and well regulated. The USDA provides a diminishing hierarchy of labels which descend towards the most commonly used terms of ‘humane’, ‘no added hormones’ and finally ‘natural’, covering virtually anything that is not a robot or made out of metal.
USDA Organic indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, antibiotics and genetic engineering may not be used. Certain chemicals are approved and in the case of farm produce people with allergies should wash their food well, even when it is organic.
Free-range indicates only that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with access to food, fresh water, and access to the outdoors during their production cycle (usually via a narrow passage way which the animals ignore as they stay close to the food). The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This may entail a tiny coop just large enough for the animals to occupy. There is no implication concerning antibiotics and chemicals.
Cage-free indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.
Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. Antibiotic, hormone and chemical use is not covered. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.
Otherwise use of the label is unregulated and the FDA actually discourages use of processed food with that label. It is a meaningless chimera that entices people into buying the ordinary, possibly polluted, as if it were organic. Many ice creams labeled ‘all natural’ are filled with HFCS( High Fructose corn Syrup)
Grass-fed. Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain ( by 70%). Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic, which covers both the source of the food stock and the treatment of the livestock.
Pasture-raised. Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products.
Humane. Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.
The National Organic Program regulates all organic crops, livestock, and agricultural products certified to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards. Organic certification agencies inspect and verify that organic farmers, ranchers, distributors, processors, and traders are complying with the USDA organic regulations. USDA conducts audits and ensures that more than 90 organic certification agencies operating around the world are properly certifying organic products. In order to sell, label, or represent their products as organic, operations must follow all of the specifications set out by the USDA organic regulations.
COOP Sometimes farmers reject the bureaucracy and costs occasioned by the USDA Organic label and form local cooperatives that certify their own organic standards, (COOP) resembling USDA Organic.
In unregulated countries (like SA)* ORGANIC and Free Range have no official meaning. Any company using the terms is answerable only to consumers who care, and to the media. Firms such as Woolworths, Walmart and Pick n Pay, peg their standards arbitrarily to the foreign source of their choice.
Processed meats containing sulfates and nitrates are outright carcinogens. Foods preserved with sulfur dioxide, common in dried fruit, juices and wines are common causes of allergy and asthma. The US does not require routine labeling of these products. South Africa does, but the rule is poorly monitored. The jury is still out on GMO labeling. If it were to be labeled, the result would more likely be obfuscation than clarity as every country could set it’s figure below which to claim ‘no GMO’. Since only the strictest organic farming ensures the veracity of this claim, ‘GMO free ORGANIC’ is in my view, the most transparent of labels. Notwithstanding, with the mixing of grains in silos, cross pollination and the contamination of species during transport, we are long passed the threshold of completely GMO free. To stay abreast of the consequences of our human experiment eating GMOs, we need a paper trail of who produces and sells what to whom.
The challenge of food security and healthy eating is exacerbated by climate change, the rising cost of commodities, water shortage and pollution. It could be dealt with by expanding small scale agriculture and eating the food our grandparents ate. Either we bury our heads and eat what we are given, or go forward by going backward and put our buying power behind authentic food.
Only an enlightened public can pressurize the food industry to treat animals as living creatures, not food fodder and to ensure that manufactured food promotes health. We must choose either to be contented cash cows or savvy consumers, who control our own fate.
*Our next blog deals with responses from SA’s organic mareketers.