What's in a (meat) label? (commentary)

What's in a (meat) label? (commentary)

THE U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has a labeling division headed up by Ms. Rosalyn Murphy- Jenkins. One of her very important tasks is to make certain that labels on packaged meat and poultry are “accurate and not misleading”.

I had the opportunity to meet with her and her team late in February regarding labeling and antibiotics.

The best example I can think of on the issue of antibiotics used in animals raised for food is the “accurate and not misleading” claim of “Raised Without Antibiotics” This product label means no antibiotics were administered during the animals life. Period.

Not even Ionophores, which are commonly used to prevent a parasitic disease in flocks known as Coccidiosis, but which are not even approved for use in human medicine. Ionophores comprise nearly 30% of all antibiotics sold for use in animal husbandry.

And, as confirmed by FSIS in 2008, if a company injects an antibiotic into an egg just before the chick is hatched, that does not qualify for the label “Raised Without Antibiotics”.  The debate that surrounded that decision was sort of like debating Roe vs. Wade. When does life begin?

In human medicine, if a pregnant Mom-to-be develops a fever during labor, a Caesarian section is often done in a semi-urgent fashion because the concern is that an infection may spread to the unborn infant causing a very serious illness called Septicemia. To reduce that risk, Mom is given an intravenous dose of a potent antibiotic just before the umbilical cord is clamped.

Like the little chick, that infant has an antibiotic on board at birth. Neither is raised without antibiotics.

So when Chick-fil-A announces that as some point in the future they will only be selling chicken meat from birds “raised without antibiotics” are they including Ionophores? Because if they are, I think we are talking a major animal well-being issue here.

I have talked to many men and women who do raise chicken antibiotic free for niche markets, but they tell me they see too many chicks die from Coccidiosis because we consider ionophores to be antibiotics. They would like to see that classification changed, and so would I.

So if Chick-fil-A buys conventional chicken raised with Ionophores, but advertises them to be antibiotic free as regards to antibiotics used in human medicine, Rosalyn tells me that would be an FTC issue, not an FSIS issue.

For the packaged poultry inspected by FSIS, Ms. Murphy-Jenkins says the labeling could also say “No Antibiotics Added” or “Raised Without Antibiotics Except Ionophores”.

These claims may be “accurate and not misleading” but I question if they help the consumer make a wise choice.

“No Antibiotics Added”, to me, sounds like it could refer to a food additive. Like maybe sprinkling a little Quinolone into the ground product to kill Salmonella.

“Raised Without Antibiotic Except Ionophores” may be self-explanatory to Feedstuffs readers who are in the business of producing food for consumption, but what does it mean to the average grocery store shopper?

FSIS told me that the consumer safety advocacy groups have assured them that shoppers understand what that claim means. I wonder what the first 100 persons leaving my local grocery would answer if I asked them what “Raised Without Antibiotics Except Ionophores” meant.

I asked if using “Raised Without Antibiotics Used in Human Medicine” would maybe be a more appropriate and self-explanatory label? I was told that would absolutely not be acceptable.

FSIS officials politely explained that that label had been offered up to the company in 2008 as a possible solution to their dilemma. The FSIS officials went on to say that a few months later they reversed that decision and decided it could not be used.

That would be me. I offered the label, but was turned down by the company. When I left USDA they removed that label as a possibility.

You see for years I often found myself in the middle of the night in my small Nebraska town with a patient in trouble. Based on a history and physical I made a decision and moved forward. No time for committees to meet, no time to gather public input.

That style does not work inside the Beltway.

In fact FSIS said they had gathered public comment on some proposed labeling rule changes four years ago and planned to have finished reviewing them in the next six months or so.

Speaking of my local grocery store, I went there this morning for background for this piece.

Conventionally raised fresh, raw chicken breasts were selling for $1.99 per pound.

Perdue had a chicken breast product with the label claiming it was “range free”, all natural and no animal parts in the feed. It sold for $4.99 per pound.

The label did not say “Raised Without Antibiotics”, just “all natural” which means no antibiotics, but how many really understand what natural and organic mean?

By the way, there were also Simple Truth chicken breasts labeled as organic that also sold for $4.99 per pound.

But as for the “not misleading” portion of labeling, these more expensive products also had a label claiming “No Hormones or Steroids Added”. Now that label the average shopper can understand and may have his or her purchase influenced by that claim.

Unfortunately, as the Feedstuffs readers know but John Q Public does not, hormones and steroids are banned for use in poultry and I find this claim to be extremely misleading.

Seems to me FSIS has some work to do to help consumers understand what, in fact, they are purchasing. At least for those who look beyond price.

For me and my family, we buy the $1.99 product.


*Dr. Richard Raymond is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety.

Volume:86 Issue:10

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