Food Labeling (2014)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with ensuring the safety of domestically consumed foods (whether produced domestically or internationally), except for meat and poultry, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
A food label must include the name of the product, a list of ingredients, nutritional information, the net quantity, allergy information, and contact information (manufacturer, packer, and/or distributor). The FDA does not pre-approve food labels. Rather, it establishes requirements for mandated food label attributes. One loophole is that there is no requirement that a picture on the label depict the food accurately. The USDA does pre-approve labels for meat and poultry.
Food labels are supposed to provide accurate nutritional information useful to consumers, protect them from unfounded health claims, and identify any protein known to cause a large majority of food allergies–peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat. Proposed new labels (sample at right) would include calories in large type and serving sizes that people actually eat; currently serving sizes are often unrealistically small to make the calorie count appear low. Another proposal is to group fats, sodium, and sugars under the title Avoid too much and group fiber, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium under the title Get enough.
A number of public interest groups are pushing for legislation regarding perceived health and environmental issues. For example, should bioengineered foods (also called GMOs and GEs) be identified on labels? The FDA’s resistance to calls for mandatory labeling of foods derived from genetic engineering is due to the process vs. product distinction for food labels; if the product of genetic engineering is not different from a non-GMO product, there is no need for a different label.
Draft FDA guidelines for GMO food labeling include:
- If the resulting food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart, give it a new name.
- If the new food has significantly different nutritional property, its label must reflect the difference.
- If the new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect, the label must say so.
The FDA has developed several categories into which health claims for food may fall, including: Health Claim–There must be scientific evidence to support it. (e.g., A diet low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.)
- Structure/Function–Claims that a food affects the Structure/Function of the body (e.g., Builds immunity) but do not refer to a disease are not pre-reviewed or authorized by the FDA. Therefore, companies frequently pursue structure/function claims because the burden of proof is on the FDA, which (1) has inadequate funding to inspect the various claims and (2) doesn’t have the legal authority to require companies to provide proof of such claims. Nutrient Claims (e.g., 50 percent less fat) may be based on an authoritative statement by a scientific body of the U.S. government or the National Academy of Sciences.
USDA: Organic Program and Safety of Meat, Poultry, Eggs
USDA Organic —The USDA has sole authority over the certification, accreditation, compliance and enforcement of the National Organic Program.
The USDA has defined terms that may be used to label meat and poultry, such as cage free, free range or free roaming, certified (has been officially evaluated for grade or other quality characteristics), and grass-fed. Other terms are hard to verify; for example the claim that animals were treated humanely, so there are several USDA programs with various definitions of humanely.
Natural is another vague term applied to meat, poultry, and eggs; the label natural does not include any standards regarding farm practices. For other foods, there are no standards regarding natural except that there must be a term of explanation (e.g., no artificial ingredients).
The USDA allows beef to claim no hormones or no antibiotics provided sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency. However, no hormones may not be claimed for pork, poultry or goat unless the label also states: Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.
Consumer groups, the health industry, and niche agricultural groups are mounting pressure on the FDA as well as on state legislatures to bring a clearer, less-confusing, labeling system to the nation’s food supply.
[Info from Food Labeling: FDA and USDA on the LWVUS website, Statesman Journal 2/28/14]