Tell Me More

You might recall a scene in the movie Elf when a comically naïve man passes a diner with a sign reading “World’s Best Cup of Coffee.” He bursts through the doors and shouts with sincerity “You did it. Congratulations!”

Most of us are a little more cautious when it comes to accepting marketing claims about our food. So if you have an interest and the option of basing your food purchases on factors other than price, here are some questions to consider.

Are the terms defined?
You may find that words such as “natural,” “humane” and “local” very well describe products that carry those and other labels in the grocery store. But it’s important to note that while the government gives guidance on how some terms are used, others are largely defined by the company marketing the item.

Look closely to see who is defining the term and how. Is their definition more restrictive than yours? Or is it even defined at all?

Is it certified?
Products that comply with certification programs such as the American Heart Association’s “Heart-Check mark,” “certified organic” and “United Egg Producer certified” are typically based on specific standards. One Ohio company even certifies that its products were raised by Amish farmers. Details on certification programs can usually be found with a simple Internet search. It’s up to you to determine if those standards have any value to you.

Is it worth it?
Labels may tell you something about the quality or composition of the product. Or they can simply promote a specific food ideology. Consider the Whole Foods’ 5-Step labeling concept for meat products. The level five-plus rating is based on a long list of requirements that include animals being born, raised and slaughtered on the same farm. Even if you agree with the standards, cattle and pig farms that meet all of these requirements are largely impractical and nonexistent.

What’s the difference?
There are regulations (although not always strictly enforced) to discourage labels that could mislead consumers into thinking that there is a difference between products where none exists. For example, a milk label that reads “antibiotic-free” could be confusing because antibiotics are prohibited in all milk. If a cow is treated with antibiotics for an illness, the milk must be thrown away until the medicine clears its system. If the animals have never received a treatment, a more accurate label might state “from cows not given antibiotics.”

It’s also important to read the fine print. Some chicken packages carry a label stating “no artificial hormones.” Follow the asterisk and you’ll often find a disclaimer stating “FDA regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry production.” Sometimes the only difference between products is the packaging.

Regardless of the labels, it’s important to note there are regulations in place for all food. Every dairy farm must go through rigorous, unannounced government inspections several times a year, and there are government inspectors in every slaughterhouse while it’s operating. Practices like the use of artificial hormones, when antibiotics may be administered and the treatment of Ohio’s farm animals are all regulated.

With so many choices available, the more information you have about your food and the farmers who produced it, the better you’ll be able to determine for yourself which labels are worth their price.