Food Labeling Controversies

“Hot” Food Controversies That Labels Do Not Disclose
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in:

  • Val-E-Vents, Sept. 2010
  • Santa Monica Daily Press, Oct. 26, 2009, as Food Labels Don’t Disclose Everything to Consumers.
  • Fullerton Observer, Mid Oct. 2009, page 10.
  • Southern Sierran, Sept. 2009, as Caveat Shopper: You Can’t Always Trust Those Food Labels.
Full disclosure on food labels is more critical as controversial food processing practices become commonplace.

Full disclosure on food labels is more critical as controversial food processing practices become commonplace. Photo courtesy of illuminating9_11 at flickr.com.

As the food supply is increasingly altered by controversial practices like liberal use of antibiotics, genetic engineering and irradiation, food labels take on greater significance as shoppers’ only link to how products are produced. Depending on what issues matters most to consumers, what labels do not say can be more meaningful than what they do.

To get a handle on contentious food processing techniques that food labels don’t disclose, it’s helpful first to understand what is mandated. Oversight is split between the USDA, which enforces labeling on meat, poultry and some egg products, and the FDA, which covers most other foods.

Most foods sold in grocery stores are required to sport an “information panel” that lists:

  • the ingredients
  • Nutrition Facts detailing the calories, fats, protein and other nutrients
  • the manufacturer, packer or distributor.

Major Food Allergens (e.g. peanuts), relevant inspections (like USDA) and special handling instructions (such as “Keep Refrigerated”) must also be declared.

However, providing Nutrition Facts on raw foods, like fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat and poultry, is only voluntary but is often posted anyway on the display case.

Fish labels must also specify whether it is wild-caught or farm-raised and, for the latter, if colorant was added to the feed to turn their naturally gray flesh pink. In California, a previous requirement that canned tuna carry a warning label about the potential dangers from mercury was struck down in the State Superior Court in 2006.

Antibiotics

Groundbreaking legislation, which would have made California the first state to prohibit feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock meant for human consumption, was voted down on June 3 (SB 416, Florez). This practice is employed routinely at large-scale industrial cattle, hog and poultry operations to hasten growth and prevent the spread of disease.

The bill’s overarching goal was to maintain the efficacy of antibiotics in treating human illness.

The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is widely considered a factor in the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Backers of SB 419, like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, claim that this practice breeds drug-resistant superbugs that can spread to humans.

In the United States, 70% of all antibiotic use is for cattle, hogs and poultry that are not sick, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Antibiotic-laced feed is purchased without a prescription – humans take antibiotics only when ill and with a doctor’s prescription.

Critics, like the consumer protection organization Food & Water Watch, contend that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics is a compensation for the unsanitary conditions emblematic of crowded factory farms.

Salmonella or Campylobacter were detected on 83% of grocery store broiler chickens in a 2007 Consumer Reports study, and the majority of those bacteria proved resistant to antibiotics. MRSA, or methicillin-resistent Staphylococcus aureus, was commonplace among Midwestern swine and swine workers in a University of Iowa study published this year.

Although the European Union has banned non-therapeutic use of antibiotics important to humans, the United States does not even require labeling of meat from animals raised on antibiotics. Most U.S. meat comes from such animals, and it is widely known that antibiotic residue remains in the meat.

Genetically Engineered

The FDA announced on January 15, 2009 that it is paving the way for genetically engineered (GE) animals to enter the food supply and without labeling.

Foods derived from GE crops, especially corn, soybeans and canola, have been in U.S. markets for a decade. By inserting segments of another species’ DNA into the genetic material, desired traits, like herbicide tolerance, can be produced immediately. The traditional method of selective breeding takes several generations.

GE food backers expect this technology to produce such wonders as fast-growing salmon and pigs with milder manure.

Many countries require labeling of GE foods, including the European Union, Japan and China. U.S. food makers label their GE products only when destined for overseas markets, despite surveys indicating that Americans support mandated labeling. At issue are possible allergic or toxic effects – GE foods do not undergo safety testing on humans – and contamination of native and organic crop strains.

Irradiation

Ionizing radiation has been allowed for several years on meat, spices, and shellfish to kill off bacteria and parasites and prolong shelf life. Lower level irradiation targeting insects has also been permitted on grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Spurred by high-profile outbreaks of illness from E. Coli and Salmonella in leafy greens, the FDA gave the go-ahead in August 2008 to exposing fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to higher level radiation to reduce bacteria not controllable through washing and also to extend shelf life. The U.S. government, along with dozens of other nations, views irradiation as a safe practice.

Labeling is required on whole, unprocessed, irradiated foods. However, processed foods with irradiated constituents are exempted under the logic that consumers already understand such foods have undergone processing.

One objection to irradiation is concern that reducing spoilage-producing microorganisms could allow competing pathogens to grow on food before spoilage becomes evident by ‘the smell test.’ For example, botulism-causing bacteria are resistant to irradiation. That irradiation can adulterate foods, either by reducing vitamin levels or by creating toxic compounds like benzene or formaldehyde, is also a subject of debate, as is the risk to workers of handling the radioactive materials sometimes involved.

In lieu of irradiation, Food & Water Watch advocates focusing on sanitation problems stemming from industrial farming methods that lead to food contamination in the first place.

Country of Origin

Effective March 16, 2009, mandatory “country of origin” labels went into effect, impacting meats and poultry (except turkey), seafood, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, ginseng, peanuts and certain nuts.

Exemptions applying to a wide range of products, including multiple ingredient and processed foods, represent sizeable loopholes. For example, mixed nuts, mixed-greens bagged salad, and fruit yogurt need not comply.

Proponents of more complete country of origin labeling argue that, without such information, consumers interested in purchasing home-grown products, whether to support U.S. farmers or to minimize the miles their food travels, are at a loss.

Informed Choice

Shopping is, in the ideal, informed choice that degrades into illusion when relevant information is withheld. Controversies that swirl around modern food production practices make the identification of the foods involved all the more central to both preserving real choice and resolving those controversies.

Absent informative labels that disclose in full the history of food products, industry and government collude to rob the public of choice and leave them shopping in the dark. The obvious elephant in the room is the fear that an informed public would opt for foods closest to how Mother Nature originally intended.

One Response to Food Labeling Controversies

  1. What a great article! You gave an excellent summary of some of the most pressing food issues consumers are concerned about today.

    For those interested in learning more about irradiation, GMOs, factory farms, etc. – and how to fight for legislative protection against them – you can find fact sheets, reports, and online actions at our website http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

    Thanks for the mention and your good work!

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