Food labels can be used to shock or shame, illuminate or inform, right-to-know versus hucksterism.
It’s mainly hucksterism. And sometimes fraud.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced today that a federal judge has approved a consent decree of permanent injunction against Butterfly Bakery Inc., a bakery based in Clifton, New Jersey, and its president, Brenda Isaac, for unlawfully distributing misbranded food products, such as muffins and snack cakes.
Samples tested by both FDA and state officials over several years show that Butterfly Bakery’s product labeling was false and misleading. For example, laboratory analysis showed that foods labeled as “sugar free” contained sugar, and that certain products contained as much as three times the amount of labeled/declared sugar, two times the amount of labeled/declared fat, and two times the amount of labeled/declared saturated fat.
In the UK, still reeling from food fraud involving horse meat, The Telegraph reports shoppers are seeking more validation about where their food comes from. However, many are bewildered by the variety of claims made by food packaging. The little red tractor that is plastered on many food products, together with claims such as “Freedom Food” and “free range” can be comforting when food supply chain safety is in doubt. But what do these logos really mean, and are you sometimes paying for more than just a misplaced sense of peace of mind? Products bearing these labels and claims often cost more, so it is worth checking whether you think it is worth it before adding to the total cost of your weekly shopping. Here is an explanation of some of the most common labels.
The Lion Mark on eggs has become common since it was launched in 1998 by the British Egg Industry Council, and the administrators of the mark claim that it means that “eggs have been produced to the highest standards of food safety”. Most significantly, the hens have been vaccinated for salmonella. The eggs produced under the mark are independently audited and have a best-before date stamped on shell and pack.
However, the mark does not guarantee that hens are free range or have high welfare conditions, merely that the eggs are produced to minimum legal requirements. Standard eggs are from hens kept indoors in cages. The Compassion in World Farming report scored the minimum Lion code standards “very poorly” and said they generally ensured compliance only with minimum standards.
The Red Tractor mark is stamped on a huge variety of farmed goods and claims to be run by “UK farmers, food producers and retailers working together”. Those who use it must pay royalties to the organisation in order to display its jaunty signage. Although people think that the tractor symbol guarantees that your food is British, this is not the case. If you are concerned about the geographical origin of your meat, you must look for a red tractor in conjunction with a Union Flag to guarantee it is from the UK. Other flags indicate that the food is from abroad.
Most free-range laying chickens are housed in barns and have access to outside land through “popholes”.
There is no legal definition of free-range pork, but it generally means pigs that have access to pasture and are born outside without stalls or crates.
Supermarket own standards
Some supermarkets have higher-than-minimum standards for their own meat. For example, Waitrose and M & S have welfare standards somewhat higher than the bare minimum, so their own-brand products will keep to these standards and may carry a logo to say so.
Labels that mean nothing at all
While all of the above labels have minimum standards attached, there are plenty of claims that supermarket labels use others purely for the feel-good factor, which mean nothing at all. “Natural”, “Country style”, “Farm fresh” and “Garden fresh” are some of these.
In the U.S., vegan advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine wants stronger regulation of feces in chicken and poop labels.
For me, information is good for those who want it and should be layered in recognition that different people want different levels of information. I want to know what a farmer or processor does to reduce or eliminate levels of dangerous microorganisms, the kind that make people barf. Market food safety at retail.