More Proof Food Labels Are Not What They Seem

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jpeg-1Photo: Via Walmart.
First your breakfast cereal, and now your chicken breasts/cheeseburgers/[insert favorite cut of meat here]. Last week, Kellogg was ordered to remove the words "all natural" from certain Kashi products that were proven to be anything but. And, today brings a new report from the Animal Welfare Institute that suggests something a bit more alarming: Many of the labels placed on meat sold in U.S. supermarkets might be bogus.

The organization spent three years trying to gather information from the USDA on the precise definitions of the labels stamped on a variety of meat products proclaiming that animals are raised in a humane or environmentally friendly way. Of the 25 products submitted by the AWI, the USDA provided information for just five; AWI officials point out that the documentation they received was vague and generally unsatisfactory, providing no specific information on the conditions in which the animals were reared. To be fair, though, Time notes that it's usually USDA policy not to give out information that food companies see as "proprietary" — in this case, how animals are raised — when the agency determines there's no public-health-related reason to do so.

Still, both the Kashi case and the AWI report speak to a larger trend in the way our food system is presented to us. Clearly, companies have caught on to buzzwords like "sustainable," "free-range," "all natural," and "organic" and know there's real money to be made from slapping them on their products.

But, with the exception of organic, there are still no set definitions or metrics for determining when these terms are appropriate to use — or, at the very least, as the AWI report shows, there's no transparency regarding what these words actually mean. This, of course, opens the door for food manufacturers to exaggerate or mislead consumers on what they're really putting into their bodies.

AWI says it plans to submit a formal petition to mandate food producers to get third-party certification for any labels claiming a product is "sustainable," "humane," or any variation of those terms. If it happens, that move would be a big one toward holding food companies accountable for what they say about their products and business practices. But, something tells me it might take a full-blown Kashi-style lawsuit (or something even more involved and agonizing) to create any kind of order in this chaotic food system. In the meantime, both cases would indicate that when you're shopping for "natural," "sustainable," or even "healthy" food, it's probably best to take those big, cheerful labels with a generous helping of salt. (Time)