Do We Know What’s In Our Food?
All people have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s produced, and where it’s from. But food companies are not required to give us most of this information. The current rules on food labeling leave a lot of room for vague claims that make it difficult to differentiate between food produced by sustainable farmers and corporate agribusinesses. Corporations keep pushing for looser labeling requirements, and it’s up to us to speak up for our right to know what’s in the food we feed our families.
Many of the processed foods available in our grocery stories include genetically engineered ingredients. GMOs have been altered at the genetic level by adding genetic material from different species or making other changes that couldn’t happen through traditional breeding. And despite industry claims, there is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of these foods and the approval process for new GMO crops is extremely weak, relying solely on testing by the companies that want to sell these new crops. Even though 90% of Americans want labels on GMO foods, the biotech industry is fighting hard against laws requiring GMO labeling.
For now, the United States does require Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) that tells us basic information about what country our food was produced in – but the food industry is constantly pushing to take away even this most basic element of transparency. This labeling for meat is regularly under attack. Most developed countries, including many in the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, Australia and Brazil, require this labeling in addition to requiring food producers to label products with GMO ingredients.
What Are Food Labels Telling Me?
The array of labels found on meat, milk, and eggs can be overwhelming. People need labels that are accurate and useful, and getting them takes political action. We cannot “shop our way out” of the problems in our food system, especially when lack of labels and inconsistent labeling obscure what is in our food and where it comes from. However, we can and should be informed what current labeling practices really mean and how they affect us.
The majority of labeling confusion could be avoided if the government established labeling requirements and certified that producers met the standards before the label could be used. Currently, the only government certification is the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal. For a product to be certified organic, it’s required to meet specific standards: [image]
- Crops cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, synthetic chemicals or sewage sludge.
- Crops cannot be genetically modified or irradiated.
- Animals must be fed only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
- Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (hoofed animals) must have access to pasture. (The enforcement of this standard is actually the subject of much controversy within the organic movement, especially for dairy cows.)
- Animals cannot be cloned.
Below are a useful tips for making sense of labels – discover more in How Much Do Labels Really Tell You?
- Private certification programs vary in standards, and it’s a good idea to do some research on their sponsors.
- All USDA-inspected meat and poultry (the vast majority of the meat in grocery stores) should have a USDA seal of inspection and a code for the producing establishment. [image]
- Meat and egg labels with a grade (such as USDA Grade A beef or Jumbo eggs) are graded based on quality and size, not production methods. USDA employees or company employees under USDA supervision perform this quality ranking.
- “Cage Free” indicates that birds are raised without cages, but it does not describe any other living conditions (for instance, cage-free eggs could have come from birds raised in an indoors, overcrowded situation).
- “Grass-fed” means that animals must receive 100% of their energy outside of weaning from grass or forage, and not from grains such as corn. This does not tell you if antibiotics on hormones were administered.
- Seafood, in particular, can be misleading – for example, despite labels on fish being sold here, there is no U.S. government standard for “organic” seafood certification. Learn more with our Seafood Buying Guide.
Unfortunately, not all labels are created equal. The fight for healthy and affordable food requires transparency and consistency in our food system. Join us by taking action to protect state rights to label GMOs!