Short of hoofing it down to the farm to see for ourselves, the only way we can learn about the meat and produce we eat is to rely on the label. We trust it to tell us how the food was raised, what’s in it, and what isn’t. But all too often, we can’t.
Here are three labels that we believe should be defined by regulation or ditched altogether.
Natural. Don’t be fooled; it doesn’t mean the food is organic, unprocessed, free from pesticides, or otherwise pure. For foods other than meat and poultry, there are no standards for the term “natural.” For meat and poultry, the Department of Agriculture’s definition has nothing to do with what the animal ate or how it was raised. It mostly outlines, instead, the way the food was processed and the additives that can be used.
Legally the USDA can hold manufacturers accountable for the proper use of the claim, but neither that agency nor any independent organization verifies the veracity of the label before it’s stamped on a product.
Free range. Most of us really want to believe this one, because it sounds wholesome and paints a pastoral picture of livestock roaming in the sun. But there’s no standard definition of the term for beef and its use is unregulated. For poultry, the USDA requires that the birds packed into a coop be given the option of access to the outdoors for an undetermined period; there’s no assurance that they ever actually made it to the outside.
Fresh. To most of us, frozen is one thing and fresh is better. But to chicken processors, fresh can mean, well, frozen. That’s because the standard for “fresh” chickens is 26° F and above. So a “fresh” broiler can be hard enough to use as a bowling ball, which is exactly what some of our advocates once did on the steps of the California state capitol to drive their point home.
For more on labels you can and can’t trust, go to Consumers Union’s website GreenerChoices.org. We’re working to push the government and producers to provide labels that are trustworthy, transparent, and truthful.
This monthly letter to subscribers from Consumer Reports President Jim Guest highlights the critical consumer issues behind our current reports. See archived letters.
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