Clear labeling of food products is at issue
Rachel Gabel is a longtime agriculture writer and the assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine.
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
Labeling food products is an interesting game. I recall many a debate over the difference between low fat products and lower fat labels, and I have been annoyed repeatedly over nonsensical labeling of items like gluten free ketchup. I also shy away from packaging that bears the non-gmo label. There are 11 GMO crops grown in the U.S. — sugar beets, canola, corn, cotton, soybeans, pink pineapple, summer squash, potatoes, papayas, apples, and alfalfa. If you’re paying more for Gmo-free ketchup, you can stop now. One of the longest standing debates among agriculture producers, specifically beef producers, is whether mandatory County of Origin Labeling, also known as M-COOL, ought to be allowed on beef at the meat counter. One of the camps insists that in addition to being prohibited by the trade agreements between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, the labeling ought to be voluntary as a value-added program, specifically for direct-to-consumer sales of beef. Another camp insists that consumers ought to be able to choose U.S. born, raised, and harvested beef and labels ought to distinguish that clarifier on all beef. This is common in produce and has proven beneficial especially during food borne illness recall efforts. It appears perhaps easier to track a head of lettuce from a specific row of a specific field owned by a specific grower than to locate some fugitives. The other debate that seems to be a tale as old as time is the labeling of imitation products. The dairy industry has been in a decades long fight with the soy milks, almond milks, and the like. The claim made by the dairy industry is a good one – that these products are clearly not dairy based but are riding the shirttails of dairy’s good reputation in part, due to marketing that isn’t accurate. That said, I’ve never accidentally come home with almond “milk.” With the advent of fake meat, the same storm is brewing in the protein industry. It is only fair to mention that fake meat companies are facing major financial obstacles and if I were looking to invest, I wouldn’t likely look there. That said, the marketing calling into question beef’s climate footprint is one that has gained traction, although the numbers used in those marketing efforts are inaccurate. Along the same lines as labeling almond “milk” and U.S. grown products, the fake meat labeling has again been moved to the spotlight with Nebraska’s Sen. Deb Fischer’s reintroduction of the Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully (MEAT) Act. The Act takes aim at consumer confusion caused by deceptive labeling practices by requiring alternative proteins to clearly display the word imitation on the packaging. Additionally, the Act would reenforce existing Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act’s (FDCA) misbranding provisions stating that any imitation meat food product, beef or beef product, or pork or pork product is misbranded unless its label has the word “imitation” in the same size and prominence immediately before or after the name of the food. The imitation product must also include a statement clearly indicating that it is not derived from and does not contain meat. It also gives the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture the authority to treat products as mis-branded. According to a release from Fischer’s office, the term “beef” is defined as the flesh of cattle and “beef product” as edible products produced in whole or in part from beef, exclusive of milk and milk products. The term “pork” is defined as the flesh of pigs and “pork product” as any food produced or processed in whole or in part from pork. The legislation defines the terms “meat,” “meat food product,” “meat byproducts,” and “meat broker” based on the definitions established in the code of federal regulations. There isn’t a large selection of fake meat available in my hometown grocery store, as you might imagine. I do study the packaging when I run across it and must admit the marketing department has their work cut out for them, especially in selecting the most mouthwatering photos of the products. It seems clear that the products aren’t “real” to my untrained eye, but the price tag tends to also make clear the difference. Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association have all expressed support of the measure. It’s not unreasonable to clearly label a product as alternatives and substitutes come to market with greater frequency and it’s certainly a vote of confidence for protein producers who work to put a safe, affordable, and abundant protein supply in the hands of consumers.