by Hilary Rossow
What's in a label?
Join us in our series to debunk the misconceptions perpetuated against agriculture!
Marketing food items is becoming increasingly murky. Buzz words, misinformation spread through social media and activist groups, and outright lies are many-headed monsters that those making a living in production agriculture fight daily. This article, the second in The Stockman’s series, will examine labeling practices and provide facts producers can use when speaking with consumers.
Organic foods are coming increasingly into most food products, especially meat and produce. Products labeled “organic” are even found prevalently on Walmart shelves in addition to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other high-end grocery stores.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a strict set of guidelines for foods that are labeled “USDA Organic.” According to usda.gov, “organic” is defined as:
“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced according to the USDA organic standards.
These methods integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.”
In common terms, USDA Organic means no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are used on crops, and animals are fed only organic crops or raised on organic range. It also prohibits the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer, radiation to preserve food or irradicate disease or pests, and the use of genetically modified varieties. Additionally, organic animal products come from animals that have not been given hormones or antibiotics.
If a product is labeled “organic” but does not have the “USDA Organic” seal, it is likely not organic as defined by the USDA. In fact, producers who sell less than $5,000 per year in organic food do not need to be certified by the USDA.
According to the Mayo Clinic, organic food has only potentially minimal health benefits over conventionally grown food.
“Some data shows possible health benefits of organic foods when compared with foods grown using the usual (conventional) process. These studies have shown differences in the food. But there is limited information to prove how these differences can give potential overall health benefits.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a definition or a set of rules for food labeled “natural.” However, the FDA is currently asking for the public’s feedback to help define the word as it relates to food according to its website, fda.gov. In the beef industry, it is common to call beef from cattle that have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics “natural.”
All plant and animal tissue contains hormones. The dairy industry has come under fire for years for hormones in milk. Bovine somatotropin (bST) is often given to dairy cows to increase milk production while maintaining feed intake. According to the FDA, there is no difference in the content of bST in hormone-treated cows’ milk versus milk from cows that were not treated.
It is illegal in the U.S. to treat hogs or poultry with hormones. Any pork or poultry product labeled “hormone-free” is redundant, unnecessary, and not superior to products not labeled thusly.
Growth implants used in beef production has also been a consumer concern. While implants reliably add pounds at weaning and finishing, some consumers worry that those hormones will cause adverse health effects when the beef is consumed.
The truth is that the difference in the amount of estrogen in implanted versus non-implanted beef is negligible. Implanted beef contains 2.5 nanograms (ng) and beef from cattle that have not been implanted contains 1.8 ng per 4 ounces. That’s a difference of 0.7 ng (that’s 0.0000000007 grams) per 4 ounces. Conversely, soy oil contains 226,757 ng of estrogen, cabbage contains 2,721 ng and peas contain 453 ng of estrogen per 4 ounces.
For reference, adult women produce 513,000 ng per day, and men produce 136,000 ng per day. Hormones are metabolized during digestion as well, so the likelihood of humans being affected by ingesting hormone-treated beef or milk is extremely low.
The short fact here: food produced and harvested in the U.S. is free of antibiotics. The USDA and the FDA work together to ensure carcasses, milk, eggs, and other animal products are free of residual antibiotics. If a carcass or milk is found to have traces of antibiotics, they are discarded, traced back to the producer, and fines and penalties may be assessed. Food purchased at a grocery store is free of antibiotics.
To paraphrase the article in the October issue of The Stockman, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe for human and animal consumption. Only a few genetically modified (GM) crops grown in the U.S. are approved for production: corn, soybeans, cotton, apples, papaya, summer squash, potatoes, alfalfa, pink pineapple, and sugar beets. If produce other than these are labeled “Non-GMO,” it is an unnecessary label and placed purely for marketing at best and fear-mongering at worst. There is negligible nutritional difference between GMOs and conventional crops.
Talking to Consumers
If an animal is sick, it is treated. Many producers choose to use growth implants as they are a low-cost means of adding pounds and feed efficiency. In both cases, withdrawal periods are respected. In both cases, the products are administered for the betterment of the animal.
A main point that can be made to consumers is that producers care about their land, their products, and the food their own families eat. Agriculture is a business. Caring for animals in a humane way creates a successful operation.
Being excellent stewards of the land produces a profitable business and ensures the longevity of the operation. Producers make every decision with the bottom line and the well-being of the land and animals in mind. Farmers and ranchers would not send food into the market they would not consume themselves.
Learn more from our resources:
4. www.stockmanmag.com for Part 1 of this series