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Labels On Food

Written by Dennis Sun

Walking into a grocery store these days is like walking into a giant puzzle, as labeling gets more and more difficult to understand. We wonder, what do all the labels mean, and are they there for our health or just for marketing the product? We all know it is for marketing the product, whether or not it’s a healthy item on the shelves.

It seems that most consumers are stuck on food labels. That is ok, but if one pays attention to the labels, they are soon confused and misled by the product. For instance, what does “natural” mean on the label?

According to Drovers CattleNetwork, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now seeking public comments on whether the agency should set a definition for the term “natural” on food labels. This action was caused after the FDA received three citizen petitions asking the agency to define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one petition asking the agency to prohibit the term “natural” on food labels. You can see the public wants change or at least clarification.

Also, the absence of a federal regulation for “natural” or “all natural” claims has resulted in a large number of class-action lawsuits against food companies, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). Those lawsuits allege “all-natural” labeling on products containing specific ingredients derived synthetically or from biotechnology misleads consumers.

The cattle and lamb sectors seem to have natural a little more defined, but it still has broad meaning that is, in some cases, dependent on whom is selling the product. Are we sure the consumer understands it? I read one overview that said the definition of “natural” within the context of beef production is more ambiguous that the definition of “organic.”

According to USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, all fresh meats qualify as “natural,” but beef that carries a “natural” label cannot contain any artificial flavors or flavorings, colored ingredients, chemical preservatives or other artificial or synthetic ingredients. In addition, natural products must not be more than “minimally processed.” Some companies promote their beef as “natural” by not exposing animals to antibiotics or growth-enhancing hormones or by finishing cattle in pastures rather than feedlots.

Finishing cattle in pastures rather than feedlots is a whole different discussion that always gets the Roundup some feedback from both sides and at times, questions my heredity.

So, we are back to the marketing value of the meat product. I read an advertisement for lamb that said the company sold eco-friendly protein. That may be true, but are phrases like that what consumers want and are looking for in today’s world?

There are USDA process verified programs that provide for third-party verification of marketing claims. Is that enough? As prices on the hoof, especially for beef products, go down as cattle numbers increase, marketing will become more important. I’m never in favor of more regulation, but do we need to define our meat products before the government does it for us? I don’t want a meat product that isn’t labeled “natural” or “eco-friendly protein” thought of as an unhealthy product.

Remember, when we are healthy we all have advice for those who are ill.