Sunday, December 21, 2008

Misleading Food Labels

Preparing a nice, green-as-possible, Christmas meal? These labels may make it encouraging to purchase one product over another, but they may not mean quite what they lead you to believe.

The list is from Consumer's Report, by way of The Daily Green. You'll find that by and large, the reasons they are considered misleading are very similar.

Free-Range or Free-Roaming: You probably most often see this term stamped on eggs, but it's also used on chicken and other meat to suggest that the animal has spent a good portion of its life outdoors. Consumer Reports says, though, that the standards for these terms are weak, and the rule for the label is only that outdoor access be made available for "an undetermined period each day." So those free range eggs could mean that the chicken who laid them lived in a coop where the door was open for five minutes a day.

Natural or All Natural: People often assume this label means organic or healthy. But no standard definition for natural exists. Consumer Reports says the term only has meaning when it's applied to meat and poultry products and means that the items contain no artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. But the producer or manufacturer decides whether or not to use it, without having the claims verified.

No Additives: Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher or Consumer Reports, says that a no additives label is often used to imply that a product has not been enhanced with the addition of natural or artificial ingredients. But there is no official definition for the term and it isn't verified when used.

No Animal By-Products: You might see this label on everything from condiments and meat (to indicate the animals were not fed any animal by-products), to cleaning and personal care products. This term is used to suggest that no ingredients are by-products from slaughtered animals. This might be helpful when it's not obvious; natural flavor could come from vegetables or animals, for example. But Consumers Union says the label is tricky because there isn't a standard, precise definition of "animal ingredients" and the label isn't used consistently. It also isn't verified by an outside body.

100% Vegan: Vegans generally avoid animal products for food and clothing, and often want to avoid products that were tested on animals. But this label does not have a standard or consistent definition and isn't verified. Alternatively, a Certified Vegan label is a registered trademark signifying that products are vegan--meaning they contain no animal ingredients or by-products, use no animal ingredients or by-products in the manufacturing process, and are not tested on animals by any company or independent contractor. The logo is administered by the Vegan Awareness Foundation, also known as Vegan Action.

Raised Without Antibiotics: Consumers Union says this term implies that no antibiotics were used in the production of a food product. The USDA has defined it to mean that meat and poultry products came from animals who were raised without the use of low-level or therapeutic doses of antibiotics. But a recent case of this label being used inaccurately by a major poultry producer illustrates some of the problems: there is no formal definition and while the USDA can hold a manufacturer accountable for the claim, no other organization is behind or verifies the claim.

The list is based on U.S. product claims but I am not confident that Canada is any better. As an example, there are questions about the validity of the Health Check symbol. Being that it is promoted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, it's easy to take it at face value, but apparently their standards are considered low.

We should be able to trust these things.

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