It pains me to say it but there are some very real connections between BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and the recent "pink slime" fiasco that need to be aired. I am not saying that "pink slime" (lean finely textured beef or LFTB for short) represents anything like the public health hazard that potentially BSE-infected meat could represent. Regulations are now in place to ensure that specified risk material is removed from every beef carcass so it does not enter the human food chain, and that the feeding of ground-up cattle remains back to cattle has been banned since 1997. However, it's hard to ignore the fundamental similarities of the two incidents and, more importantly, the underlying circumstances and mindsets that led to the adoption in both cases of some highly questionable industry practices -- practices that most people would have almost certainly have opposed had they been given the chance.
This past Saturday New York City’s Greenmarket hosted an informational panel called “The Educated Eater” at First Presbyterian Church. I represented Animal Welfare Approved in a panel discussion on the pros and cons of using labeling as a way to value food. Other panelists included Jonathan White of Bobolink Dairy, Alice Varon of Certified Naturally Grown, and John Gorzynski of Gorzynski Ornery Farm. Gabrielle Langholtz moderated the panel, challenging both guests and panelists to define what (if any) role labeling has in food production and consumption.
The discussion began with a clarification of the term “cage-free” and how the true meaning of that term can be dramatically different than the pastoral ideal most people envision. We discussed organic standards, and how those standards have changed since becoming a federally regulated program. We also talked about the difference between self-certified and third-party certified label claims (i.e., who is accountable for the label). For instance, if a producer wants to claim that his or her chickens were “raised without antibiotics,” this claim can be made with a simple affidavit from that producer. However, if a farmer wanted to claim that his animals were “Animal Welfare Approved,” that would require a third-party inspection by an Animal Welfare Approved auditor.
In my mind, the take home message was that labels are useful, but only in proportion to the integrity of the label. My advice in navigating the label landscape is: use with care. We have a good glossary of common label claims (and what they really mean) on our website. Don”t be afraid to read the standards and compare the meanings. And if you have a question about food labels, pitch it to our blog. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll research it and get back to you.