3 New Food Labeling Laws In The U.S. And What They Mean For You

3 New Food Labeling Laws In The U.S. And What They Mean For You - rubythemag.com

Food labels are confusing.

Let’s get that out of the way straight off.

Walk down the aisles of any grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with potentially ambiguous terms like natural, non-GMO, farm-raised, free-range and grass-fed.

If we’ve learned anything from the recent debacle over the “natural” label, it’s that food manufacturers are still afforded plenty of creative space when it comes to how they mark their products.

“At the end of the day, a label is only as good as the standards behind it,” says Chris Hunt, special advisor on food and agriculture at GRACE Communications Foundation, which educates consumers on the benefits of sustainable agriculture.

“Unfortunately there’s a real lack of good labels with solid standards in the U.S. right now.”

Here’s a run through the latest food labeling controversies and what you need to know in order to make more informed choices at the supermarket.

Meat Labeling
The Status

In December, after more than a decade on the books, Congress repealed the Country Of Origin Labeling law that required meat manufacturers to include the animal’s country of origin on packages of red meat. Before the repeal, labels were required to tell shoppers where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Now, Country of Origin Labeling, commonly referred to as “COOL,” will be entirely voluntary.

What You Need To Know

A second major issue plagues meat labeling. In addition to obscured information about where our food is coming from, there is inconsistent, sometimes nonexistent, regulation of meat labeling overall. The majority of manufacturers who tag their meat as Grass-Fed and Free-Range, which have clear specifications on how the animal is raised, have not been certified by the US Department of Agriculture. In other words, no one has actually gone to the facility to check whether the producer is upholding those standards.

Why You Should Be Concerned

Without COOL, consumers don’t know where their food comes from, even if other countries have different standards for raising livestock. That sets a precedent that organizations, like GRACE, feel is dangerous.

“Once the government says corporations don’t have to say where food is coming from,” says Hunt, “Who’s to say that they have to provide information about food safety, nutritional data or ingredients?”

Hunt acknowledges that though it is unlikely to get to that extreme, the repeal dealt a major blow to transparency in the food system.

What It Means For Your Health

While there are health implications to not knowing where beef came from – a breakout of Mad Cow disease might be more difficult to trace or control, for instance – COOL requirements never established standards for how the meat was produced.

In fact, most of the meat in the United States is factory farmed. Meaning, the animals may have been pumped with hormones and antibiotics, and raised in tight quarters. As bad as that sounds, the details can become even more clouded when meat comes from another country.

What It Means For How You Shop

With COOL in place, if a significant number of consumers wanted American grass-fed meat, they could push retailers to offer it. Without COOL, the potential for competition is eliminated. Packers now have the power to unilaterally decide from which source the cattle come and sell it to the unsuspecting consumer.

With unlabeled foreign meat sold at a lower price on the market, more expensive U.S.-certified cattle producers may not be able to stay in business.

What You Can Do About It

Look for labels from reliable third parties who do enforce their standards, including the American Grass-Fed label and Animal Welfare Approved. You can trust that meat marked with these labels means that the animal was raised on pasture, given antibiotics only if they were sick, and not given synthetic hormones.

Shopping at local farmer’s markets allows you to ask the farmer directly about the production practices used. You’ll know where the meat is coming from. Eatwellguide.org offers a directory of 20,000 farmer’s markets, CSAs, and other places that offer sustainably raised and processed foods.

GMO Labeling
The Status

Though many non-genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are already labeled as such, several states across the U.S. have started to require foods that contain GMOs to indicate this on their packaging. The Senate is now considering the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, dubbed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act by food transparency advocates, which prohibits states from requiring GMO labeling.

In November, the Federal Drug Administration determined that one manufacturer’s Genetically Engineered (GE) salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered Atlantic salmon. The import of GE salmon is still on hold while the FDA develops proper labeling.

What You Need To Know

You don’t have to question every single fruit and vegetable you see. GMO versions of many fruit and vegetable varieties are not commercially available in the U.S. The big ones here are corn and soy, which make their way into 70 to 80 percent of the food we eat.

GE salmon, like the factory farm model among livestock, is designed to bring salmon to the market more quickly and for less money. The way it is introduced to the U.S. market may pave the way for genetic engineering of other animals.

Why You Should Be Concerned

While there remains scant evidence that genetically modified crops have a negative impact on your health, they do have a negative impact on the environment. GMOs are treated with more pesticides than other crops, which in addition to being bad for the environment is particularly harmful to the health of farm workers.

Some experts expressed concern over the process that led to the FDA approval of GE salmon. According to Jaydee Hanson, a senior analyst for the Center for Food Safety, the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine used an assessment they would use to test a new drug, rather than one used to test food additives for humans.

“We should not have people whose training is in how to breed rats for drug testing reviewing whether people should eat a food.”

There have been slip-ups in which GMOs approved for use in animal feed but not for human consumption have ended up in human food.

What This Means For How You Shop

First, check out the list of GMO crops approved for production in the U.S., so you know which foods to pay attention to. Also look out for high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch and soybean oil – these end-of-the-list ingredients are the most common ways that GMOs make their way into our food.

As a shortcut, the organic label prohibits use of GMOs and the standards are strictly enforced. A third-party certification by the Non-GMO Project is also reliable.

What You Can Do About It

Organizations like the Center for Food Safety provide information on the status of food labeling laws.

Buy from companies that have good sustainability practices. The organization has also put together a list of grocers and companies that have agreed to ban the entry of GE salmon in their facilities.

The Center for Food Safety also offers an interactive GE Food Labeling Laws map detailing the growing presence of laws requiring information on GE content in consumer food products around the world.

Seafood Labeling & Fraud
The Status

Seafood fraud is a major problem worldwide, costing Americans up to $25 billion annually.

In 2014, President Obama established a task force to look at mislabeled and illegal seafood. In addition, the government is working to develop a traceability program for at-risk species that would allow shoppers in the frozen fish aisle to scan a bag of shrimp, for instance, and read about where, how and by whom it was caught. If the pilot program, which is being tested now, works, it could alleviate other labeling problems, which include inaccurate identification and illegally-run fishing operations.

What You Need To Know

Seafood has an extremely complex supply chain. Foreign fish changes hands several times before it even arrives in the U.S. and a single piece of fish can have 200 pieces of information attached to it.

Oceana, an organization that helps protect and restore the world’s oceans, reported that approximately 30 percent of fish it has tested is mislabeled, with shrimp, cod and abalone among the most common. It happens at all levels of the supply chain, which makes it difficult to track the origin, and sometimes even the type, of fish you’re getting. Having a standardized approach for processing seafood could minimize this problem.

Why You Should Be Concerned

Seafood fraud puts consumers and fishermen at a disadvantage. A distributor who labels tilapia as the more expensive red snapper is ripping off the consumer and taking business away from honest fishermen who are charging the fair price for snapper.

Even more alarming is the amount of fish that is caught using slave labor, prominent in Southeast Asia.

Finally, the way we catch and process seafood can have a serious impact on our oceans. Overfishing has already depleted numerous species.

“We need to responsibly manage the seafood industry if we want to continue to eat fish,” says Gilbert Brogan, Fisheries Campaign Manager at Oceana.

What This Could Mean For Your Health

The other problem with not being able to trust the labels on your seafood is that the production methods used by fisheries in other countries are not always up to U.S. Standards, Brogan explains.

“When you buy shrimp in the United States, you might get wild shrimp, caught from the Gulf of Mexico. Or you might get farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia that has been treated with huge amounts of antibiotics and was raised in ponds filled with shrimp waste – water you wouldn’t want to touch let alone consume.”

What This Means For How You Shop

The best thing you can do when you shop is ask questions: Where the fish came from and how it was caught and raised.

“People who are selling fish should have that information available,” says Brogan. “If those answers aren’t there, move on to someplace else.”

Buying U.S. wild-caught is also a safer bet.

“American fisheries are managed responsibly. We have quotas and requirements to protect habitat and reduce the amount of waste shuffled overboard,” says Brogan. “Those aren’t required everywhere in the world.”

Buyers’ guides, like the smartphone app put out by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program, looks at different fish choices and what the risks are with buying them as well as provides questions to ask your fisherman.

What You Can Do About It

“Hearing from consumers is very powerful to help further change,” says Brogan. Those concerned can provide feedback to the presidential task force.


Writer Christina GarofaloChristina Garofalo is an essayist and journalist whose work spans food, travel and femme culture. Her work has appeared in Paste, First We Feast and Robb Report, and she runs the blog Adventures in Frugal. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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