The Truth Behind Food Labels

The Truth Behind Food Labels

It can be confusing trying to make sense of all the environmental claims plastered on food products lining grocery store aisles.

By Gretel H. Schueller/Photograph by Stephen Wilkes
Published: March-April 2011

American Humane Certified 
A program of the American Humane Association, this label permits both caged and cage-free options for egg-laying hens. A caged hen can be crammed into a space the size of a sheet of paper. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.

Dolphin Safe 
This is a partially certified claim because the National Marine Fisheries Service verifies only tuna caught from a specific region--the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean--and not all tuna. Tuna from this designated area might bear a label that includes the additional phrase "US Department of Commerce." Tuna caught outside this area and labeled "dolphin safe" has not been independently substantiated. To muddy the waters further, the dolphin-safe label is not licensed by any single organization, so there are no universal standards in place and most companies have developed their own logos.

Grass Fed 
This label would seem to mean that a cow ate only grass. But all cows eat grass when they're young. So unscrupulous greenwashers can legally put this label on beef from conventional feedlot cattle. Make sure the label states "100% grass fed." Better yet--because verification of the claim is voluntary--also look for the USDA Process Verified shield. The agency has defined the label to mean that the cows were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent grass and forage, with no grains or grain products. The cows must also have access to pasture during most of the growing season.

Nutri Clean Residue Free Certification 
This label, from the Scientist Certification System's Nutri Clean program, implies that a food bearing this label is free from pesticide residue, which isn't entirely accurate. The program merely tests products for pesticide residue and sets limits for the detection of specific ones. It also doesn't necessarily mean that there were no pesticides used to grow the food. In fact, some of the residue limits are the same as the ones set by the EPA; in those cases, the label really offers nothing more than its conventional counterpart.

Marine Stewardship Council 
The MSC got its start as a noble initiative between the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, a major fish retailer. In 1999 both organizations withdrew from all management, and the MSC became an independent nonprofit (see "Gone Fish," page 94). Today it's considered one of the biggest seafood certifiers. However, it's come under attack by some top-tier ocean scientists who say it's a scheme that fails to protect the environment and needs radical reform. In particular, they question the sustainable certification of several fisheries that in recent years have experienced massive declines. These include the important U.S. trawl fishery for pollock in the eastern Bering Sea. The MSC has also pronounced many destructive bottom-trawl fisheries sustainable. Furthermore, critics say, the MSC's methodology and assessment can lead to an "inconsistent application of standards." Last, the program receives financial contributions from corporations that sell MSC-labeled seafood, posing a conflict of interest.

False Advertising
Some common labels are so vague as to be utter nonsense. The terms below have no standards or definitions, or any method of verification. Thus the producer can use them in any way it sees fit, with no repercussions.

Cruelty free
Cage free 
Environmentally friendly
Nature's friend
No chemicals
Vegetarian fed

This story originally ran in the March-April 2011 issue as "Peeling Back the Label."

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