Not all labels carry the same weight.
While many food products have labels such as “natural,” not all of those labels have specific and well-defined meanings. And some products have a label that is technically true, but which can still be misleading.
But when a government label is on a product, that generally means there is a specific meaning.
“It gets tricky,” says Dan Kovich, director of science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council. “In some ways it is still a little bit of wild west when it comes to what is on the product.”
Most government food labels originate either at the Food and Drug Administration or the
USDA. Many FDA labels relate to nutritional information. USDA labels generally have more to do with processes — with the exception of meat labels, which often refer to a grade of meat.
The two best known non-meat-grade USDA labels are for organic or bioengineered products, according to USDA officials.
A USDA organic label refers specifically to the way a product is produced. There is a certification process involved. The label does not specifically refer to health of the product or its nutritional value. For more information on the USDA organic program visit https://bit.ly/2DlrF9i.
The bioengineered label is a result of a law passed in 2016. The standard was announced by United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in December of 2018 and defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectible genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding.
That standard is still being implemented. The mandatory compliance date is Jan. 1, 2022, and the USDA is giving food companies several options for the label, including use of a symbol or of a code or number consumers could use to gather more information about a product.
Generally speaking, Kovich says, it is important to look at what the label says, how it is determined and who is making the determination.
For example, the ingredients list is relatively bullet-proof. The name of the product is a basic thing, and a logo that is government-sanctioned and has some type of verification (such as a USDA organic label) is trustworthy.
But there are other types of labels. Some may be technically true but still misleading, such as a GMO-free label on a type of product which never has GMOs. Technically, a company could call something “gluten-free” for example, and that might be true — but it may also be true that all versions of that food are naturally gluten-free.
Another difficult claim “grass-fed.” Because there is no USDA “grass-fed” label, there is no specific national standard for what that means. Some animals used to produce meat products that are sold using that label may have spent their entire lives on pasture, while others may have only spent a brief time on pasture.
And finally, “labels like ‘natural’ are essentially meaningless,” Kovich says.