Labels cause communication problems (commentary)Labels cause communication problems (commentary)
August 4, 2016
*Dr. Richard Raymond is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.
THE poor consumer repeatedly gets bashed and denigrated, especially in some of the electronic journals frequented by those either in the meat and poultry industry or who have retired after having spent their lives feeding us.
I agree that consumers may not know much about where their food comes from or the technologies that allow farmers to use less land and water to raise more pounds of meat and poultry than ever before, but whose fault is that?
As an example of the extreme, I presented at one conference where a consumer asked why people had to slaughter pigs and cows. Why, she asked, can't everyone just go to the grocery store to buy their meat?
I would guess that the average shopper gets most of his or her information from the labels on meat and poultry that, by law, must be "accurate and not misleading."
Let me list a few labels and other statements from leaders and respond to them with what I believe consumers (or I) think about them:
* No hormones added. When this label is on a package of chicken, turkey, pork or bison meat, it may be accurate, but it is misleading. It's no wonder the average consumer thinks most animals are given hormones to make them larger. Shame on the industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for allowing this misleading practice.
* Our broilers are all cage free. Huh, I guess most other chickens are then raised in cages and that would be inhumane. I guess I will buy this product.
* Our cows were not injected with rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) or any other hormones. I also read on the label that the Food & Drug Administration states that there is no difference in milk from cows supplemented with rbST or not, so why does this label imply that my little girls would be at risk if they drink milk from supplemented cows? Do I trust the dairy producer or FDA?
* No antibiotics — Never ever. This seems pretty simple and straightforward — until one learns that the antibiotic class of ionophores is okay to use and medically important antibiotics can be used in the first 24 hours of life. Once again, how can we point a finger at consumers and call them misinformed when we are doing the misinforming?
* No medically important antibiotics used. I suggest that you ask your physician if he or she considers oxytetracycline or chlortetracycline — which account for more than 40% of antibiotics sold for use in animals — to be medically important. Don't take my word for it.
* Organic. This must be safer and healthier for me and my kids. I guess I should fork over a few extra bucks for the kids' sake.
* All natural. Nothing is all natural anymore, beginning with the reproductive process. I mean, really?
* Grass fed. Cows are or were, at one time, all grass fed, of course. That does not mean that they did not spend their last months in a feedlot on a grass/corn mixture.
* Antibiotic free. Well, since I have an allergy to penicillin, I guess I should choose this label and its meat because I assume that the products in the rest of the meat case can't make that claim or else they would.
* All products sold at our farmers market are grown locally. This sign was at the entrance to an outdoor market I visited in Steamboat Springs, Colo., yet the first booth I came to advertised line-caught halibut.
* Raw milk is healthier milk. I bet that is why my son has cystic fibrosis, because we fed him pasteurized milk.
* Eating raw or undercooked meat, poultry or fish may cause an increased risk of a foodborne illness. That statement doesn't actually sound too bad. At least eating raw or undercooked products won't kill me or my children, right?
* Inspected and passed by USDA. Phew, I am so glad Teddy Roosevelt signed the Federal Meat Inspection Act into law so I don't have to be obsessive-compulsive about how I handle and cook my meat and poultry.
* As of today, non-O157:H7 STECs (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli) in ground beef are declared to be an adulterant. Double phew, I am so glad I don't have to worry about them, either, whatever non-O157:H7 is ... not to mention that STEC thing, whatever it is.
* In a January 2015 report, USDA stated that 83% of mechanically separated chicken parts were contaminated with salmonella. Honey, forget about the last two statements regarding USDA inspection. Just get out the tongs, use them to grab the wings and drummies out of the fridge, being careful not to touch them yourself, and bury them 3 ft. deep in the garden plot.
* What is more scrambled than a scrambled egg? The U.S. food safety system. That's according to Caroline Smith-DeWall, who, at the time of the statement, was with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
* How did E. coli get in the spinach in the Salinas Valley that made hundreds of people sick? If you look into an E. coli O157 outbreak for long enough, you will probably bump into a cow. That's according to Nancy Donley, former president of STOP Foodborne Illness.
The investigators did bump into a cow — a whole bunch of them — but was there ever an announcement that equaled all the bad press as the outbreak grew? Nope. We would not want to inform consumers that it was not the spinach's fault or point a finger at a dairy farmer.
I even once had a physician tell me that the reason chicken breasts in the meat case are so much bigger now than when he was growing up is because the chicken farmers are pumping the birds full of hormones. He read the labels and reached the conclusion that only a few producers raise their birds without adding hormones.
At least he thinks he knows and bases his choices on those "accurate and not misleading" labels.
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