The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Friday, May 28, 2010

What the Heck Does That Mean? Food Labels Uncovered.

I'm not a meat-eater (with the exception of some seafood), but my family eats meat, and I'd argue most people around the globe would happily indulge in animal protein.

Here in the USA, food is categorized according to specific characteristics. (Information gathered from USDA website).

If a product is "certified," that means it's been evaluated by both the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Agriculture Marketing Service to meet specific standards for class, grade, or other quality characteristics. A company can certify it's own product, but it must be labeled as such. For example, "(Name of company)'s Certified Beef."

"Free Range/Free Roaming Chicken" means that the animals have had access to an area outside. Here's the thing about this, however. According to PETA, there are no USDA guidelines on how long the animals must be outdoors. And "access" does not necessarily mean the animal has actually been running around, flapping its wings in the fresh outdoor air. See http://www.peta.org/mc/factsheet_display.asp?ID=96 for more information on this and other related topics.

"Chemical Free" is not allowed on the label because it is a misleading term and could be confusing to the consumer. Antibiotics are not considered a chemical, for example.

"Fresh Poultry" means the internal temperature of the product must not be below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. (Although it may vary 1-2 degrees below that number depending on whether it's sold within an inspected establishment or commerce.)

"Mechanically Separated Meat" is when the meat is forced through a sieve (or something similar) under high pressure to separate the bone from surrounding edible tissue. Mechanical beef is considered inedible because of the risk of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow" disease). As an aside, BSE (as it's also called) has only been found in one cow in the USA (2003), and that cow was originally purchased from Canada. More than 180,000 cases of BSE were confirmed in Great Britain in the 1990's, and the epidemic peaked in January of 1993. There's strong evidence that the outbreak was caused by a antibiotic resistant prion, spread by feeding young calves meat-and-bone meal. Hello? Feeding meat to an herbivore? Of course there would be problems! Anyhow, in August of 1997, the FDA prohibited the use of most animal protein in ruminants' diets. (Ruminants are hoofed, horned animals such as cows, sheep, and goats. Didn't know that? Hey, neither did I until doing this research). The USDA and APHIS (since 1989) also prohibited the importation of these animals and most of the edible products made from these animals from all of Europe. (APHIS-Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service) Some sheep, by the way, have a similar disease called "scrapie." Anyhow, that's why, in a nutshell, you won't see Mechanically Separated Beef.

"Natural" means the product has been minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or colorings. Why place "natural flavorings" on a label instead of listing what has been used? One reason I've found is because a company may not want to give away its "secret recipe." Still, I don't like this label. I want to know what's in my food! It seems awful sneaky, being able to be so vague.

"No hormones" in beef means that the company must provide documentation to the USDA showing that no hormones have been used in raising the animals. I'm searching to see if I can find what kind of documentation is needed. How can it be proven?

"Organic" food has stringent guidelines. The food must not have been grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sludge from sewage. Animals must have been fed food without animal by-products (thereby most likely the bovine will not have contracted BSE) and should be free of hormones or antibiotics. More on organically grown food in further posts.

There are many more labels, but these are a start to aiding you in making healthful choices for you and your family.

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