Mislabeling of Foods: The Questions to Ask and the Information to Know

While the media reports of mislabeled fish continue to stun a trusting public, this may be a good time to look at the bigger issue. With an increased awareness of food in our culture, buzzwords are showing up on labels and menus left and right. And aside from the terms that are USDA regulated, it is almost impossible to know if these marketing claims are true.

How can concerned consumers know that the organic, grass-fed, humanely-raised and antibiotic-free steak on their plate is all that it claims to be? Unless you bring a very sophisticated microscope to the dining establishment of your next meal, it will be impossible to know how the animal on your plate was raised or whether it was ever given antibiotics.

We should all strive to put the best meat we can find on our plates. To do so today, we depend solely on the reputation and honesty of the source of the product, the restaurant and retail store from which it is served or sold.

The best way to learn about what you are getting is, of course, to ask questions. It does not take much to become informed and to know your food. But it is important. Unlike in Europe, there is no "food police" here to verify that your steak indeed comes from a local farm, or that your chicken was roaming free-range before being roasted for you.

One of the very real concerns is the proliferation of antibiotics in our food system. The majority of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to livestock to protect them from diseases that are caused by overcrowding and improper care. By administering antibiotics to prevent disease, we are creating super bacteria and antibiotic-resistant infections that are dangerous or deadly to humans. As the bacteria adapt and grow, stronger and new, super-strength antibiotics have to be developed to treat humans.

Much of the feed that ranchers use on commodity beef is laced with antibiotics, and there is no tracking system in place to know which antibiotics are being given to which livestock and in what quantity. While hormones are not allowed in poultry or pork by the USDA, they are commonly used to bulk up beef cattle in feedlots. A proliferation of hormones in the beef we eat has been linked to the early onset of puberty in young girls as well as hormonal cancers. We are creating a dangerous situation so we can eat meat as cheaply as possible.

This is a real issue we cannot ignore. We are the market -- we create the demand. We have to make better choices to protect our health and the welfare of the animals we eat, which will all result in a better tasting dish! As Michael Pollan said, "We all can vote with our forks. We get three votes a day."

When more people start asking if that chicken on the menu or in the rotisserie is truly organic, or if the meat is indeed antibiotic free and, even more importantly, antibiotic free from birth (it is called a "Never-Ever" program), the pressure will mount for our restaurateurs and retailers to be less casual and be more accurate. And in order to be more accurate, restaurateurs and retailers will need to ask more informed questions to the sources of the food. Everyone shares in this responsibility. Calling a farm by its name when it is real is useful. Unfortunately, a lot of companies today are named 'something' ranch, or farms, without being one.

The future of food in our nation starts by making chefs and retailers accountable today. The ultimate goal is to get the best on your plate. And, as I like to point out at every cooking demonstration, a happy chicken is a tasty chicken.

The terms you should know and understand:

Natural. This means very little. The term is not regulated and has no standards attached to it.

Free-range. The poultry flock has shelter in a building and unlimited access to food, fresh water and the outdoors. That outdoor area may be fenced in or netted.

Cage-free. In reference to egg-laying hens, this means that the flock was indoors and able to roam around the building or room.

Antibiotic-free. USDA regulates the terms "no antibiotics added" and "raised without the use of antibiotics." But this term still applies to animals who have been given antibiotics and then withdrawn from them just a few days before processing.

No added hormones, raised without hormones. USDA regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork or goat.

Never-Ever Program. This program prohibits the use of growth hormones and antibiotics during the entire life of an animal, at any point and time. It has reliability when accompanied by a "USDA Process Verified" shield or the written guarantee by the source.

Organic. All producers must meet animal health and welfare standards, no antibiotics or growth hormones, use of 100% organic feed, and access to the outdoors. Audits are conducted and the USDA ensures that the certification agencies are all following the protocols.

Grass-fed. Refers only to what the animals eat, which must be grass for the majority of their lives, but it does not limit antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.

Pasture-raised. There are too many variables in agricultural systems for the USDA to regulate or even define this term.

Humane. Many third-party certification programs with widely varying claims exist to ensure the humane welfare of animals, and the USDA does not regulate this term.

Local. Not regulated and defined variously as 100 or 250 miles from your area. The benefits of local eating include supporting small farms in your region and eating fresh food that has been transported shorter distances.