“Hormones Are For Teenagers” states a rustic-looking billboard for Minnesota-based Gold’n Plump. Clever, huh? It’s a humorous way of getting across the message that no added hormones are used to raise Gold’n Plump chickens. And that’s perfectly true. But there’s more to the story. The fact is the federal government banned hormones in U.S. pork and poultry production several years ago. So by law no chicken, Gold’n Plump or otherwise, can be given hormones to promote growth. Saying a chicken breast contains “no added hormones” is a little like saying, “no bald eagle feathers were used in the manufacture of this pillow.”
The confusion over hormone-related claims made by poultry companies is just one example of how much of a mess America’s food labeling system is these days. Major corporations like it that way. It provides plenty of avenues for befuddling consumers who want to use their food dollars to support farming systems that protect the environment, treat livestock well and pay farmers a fair price. But a little bit of homework can help shoppers navigate the land of labels and discover what they are really paying for.
Let’s start with a primer on a few common terms you are likely to run into at the grocery store or co-op:
The word “natural” may well be the most misused (and misunderstood) term in U.S. food labeling. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “natural” can be used on a label as long as a product does not “contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example).” In other words, “natural” tells a consumer nothing about how that food was raised.
• Free Range
As a legal term, “free range” only applies to poultry. The USDA requires that birds labeled “free range” be given access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each day. That could mean five hours, or five minutes.
• Environmentally Friendly
If you see the phrase “environmentally friendly” on a label, it assures you of two things: the producers of that product know how to spell the word “environmentally,” and they know how to spell the word “friendly.” In other words, the use of such a statement is not regulated by the government and it has next to no legal foundation behind it.
• No Antibiotics Used
This means that no antibiotics were used to produce the product. Another term you may run into is something like “no sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics.” That means the animal was not fed antibiotics solely to promote growth, but was probably given drugs to treat illness. Companies that make antibiotic-related claims must provide affidavits and protocols to the USDA. However, USDA officials concede it’s difficult to make certain firms are adhering to their paper promises.
• No Hormones Administered (or Added)
Again, it is illegal to use added hormones in poultry and pork. But they can be used to produce cattle. A “no added hormones” statement on beef means the company has submitted paperwork to the USDA showing its product doesn’t contain these growth promoters. But as with the antibiotics claims, enforcement is problematic.
In recent years, the “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” label has become a popular one used by numerous beef and dairy producers to differentiate their product. Most sources of grass-fed products, many of which are here in Minnesota, are honest-to-goodness pasture-based farmers and ranchers. But the use of the term is not regulated by the government, leaving it open for abuse by large meat firms wanting to capitalize on the popularity of grass-fed products while cutting a few corners.
Here’s some good news: After intense pressure from the Land Stewardship Project and other members of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the USDA last summer came out with a solid set of proposed rules for grass-fed cattle, sheep and other ruminant livestock. The rules don’t apply to pigs. It requires that animals certified as “grass-fed” receive at least 99 percent of their energy from a grass or forage based diet. You could be seeing a “grass-fed” label that’s officially regulated by the USDA in your local meat case later this year.
• USDA Certified Organic
This label bans synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation, sewage sludge, artificial ingredients…you get the picture. The rules aren’t perfect. For example, a barn-sized loophole is apparently allowing factory dairies to be certified organic even when the cows are kept in confinement. But overall, shoppers can be pretty confident that when they buy organic, they are supporting environmentally sound production methods. In order to be officially “certified organic,” a product must be made up of 100 percent organic ingredients. If instead you see the phrasing “made with organic ingredients,” that means that product was made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients but didn’t quite attain the 100 percent threshold.
So what’s a busy consumer to do? The ideal is to buy food from local farmers who can answer your questions about production practices. That’s not always possible, of course, but don’t be afraid to do a little research. It’s surprising how much you can learn from a brief conversation at a farmers’ market, a glance at a farm’s website or a chat on the telephone. A good rule of thumb is the more information provided by a farm about how the food was raised, the better.
The next best thing is to look for products that are certified by a third-party agency. A third-party is a neutral inspection service that physically visits farms on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean relying on Tyson Foods to inspect its own poultry barns, or the USDA to say, “Gosh, it sure looks good on paper.” For example, Food Alliance Midwest, based in Saint Paul, and USDA Certified Organic are well-established third-party certification systems that utilize stringent standards. The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels is a user-friendly website that allows consumers to check on the credibility of over 130 “green” product labels. The website allows people to learn more about products that are eco-labeled compared to those that are conventionally produced. Consumers can also compare labels quickly with a shorthand report card that can be printed out and used while shopping.
In a sense, the fact that we need food labels at all is an indication of how disconnected from each other eaters and farmers have become. But by supporting labels that tell the true story behind that product, some of those links can be re-forged.