As the food supply is increasingly altered by controversial practices like liberal use of antibiotics, genetic engineering and irradiation, food labels take on greater significance as shoppers’ only link to how products are produced. Depending on what issues matters most to consumers, what labels do not say can be more meaningful than what they do.

To get a handle on contentious food processing techniques that food labels don’t disclose, it’s helpful first to understand what is mandated. Oversight is split between the USDA, which enforces labeling on meat, poultry and some egg products, and the FDA, which covers most other foods.

Most foods sold in grocery stores are required to sport an “information panel” that lists: 1) the ingredients; 2) nutrition facts detailing the calories, fats, protein and other nutrients; and 3) the manufacturer, packer or distributor. major food allergens (e.g. peanuts), relevant inspections (like USDA) and special handling instructions (such as “keep refrigerated”) must also be declared.

However, providing nutrition facts on raw foods, like fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat and poultry, is only voluntary but is often posted anyway on the display case.

Fish labels must also specify whether it is wild-caught or farm-raised and, for the latter, if colorant was added to the feed to turn their naturally gray flesh pink. In California, a previous requirement that canned tuna carry a warning label about the potential dangers from mercury was struck down in the state Superior Court in 2006.

Antibiotics

Groundbreaking legislation, which would have made California the first state to prohibit feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock meant for human consumption, was voted down on June 3 (SB 416, Florez). This practice is employed routinely at large-scale industrial cattle, hog and poultry operations to hasten growth and prevent the spread of disease.

The bill’s overarching goal was to maintain the efficacy of antibiotics in treating human illness.

The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is widely considered a factor in the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. Backers of SB 419, like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, claim that this practice breeds drug-resistant superbugs that can spread to humans.

In the United States, 70 percent of all antibiotics are used on cattle, hogs and poultry that are not sick, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Antibiotic-laced feed is purchased without a prescription — humans take antibiotics only when ill and with a doctor’s prescription.

Critics, like the consumer protection organization Food & Water Watch, contend that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics is a compensation for the unsanitary conditions emblematic of crowded factory farms..

Genetically Engineered

The FDA announced on Jan. 15, 2009 that it is paving the way for genetically engineered (GE) animals to enter the food supply and without labeling.

Foods derived from GE crops, especially corn, soybeans and canola, have been in U.S. markets for a decade. By inserting segments of another species’ DNA into the genetic material, desired traits, like herbicide tolerance, can be produced immediately. The traditional method of selective breeding takes several generations.

Dozens of other countries require labeling of GE foods, including the European Union and China. U.S. food makers label their GE products only when destined for overseas markets, despite surveys indicating that Americans support mandated labeling. At issue are possible allergic or toxic effects – GE foods do not undergo safety testing on humans – and contamination of native and organic crop strains.

Irradiation

Ionizing radiation has been allowed for several years on meat, spices and shellfish to kill off bacteria and parasites and prolong shelf life. Lower level irradiation targeting insects has also been permitted on grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Spurred by high-profile outbreaks of illness from E. coli and salmonella in leafy greens, the FDA gave the go-ahead in August 2008 to exposing fresh iceberg lettuce and spinach to higher level radiation to reduce bacteria not controllable through washing and also to extend shelf life. The U.S. government, along with dozens of other nations, views irradiation as a safe practice.

Labeling is required on whole, unprocessed, irradiated foods. However, processed foods with irradiated constituents are exempted under the logic that consumers already understand such foods have undergone processing.

One objection to irradiation is concern that reducing spoilage-producing microorganisms could allow competing pathogens to grow on food before spoilage becomes evident by “the smell test.” For example, botulism-causing bacteria are resistant to irradiation.

Country of Origin

Effective March 16, 2009, mandatory “country of origin” labels went into effect, impacting meats and poultry (except turkey), seafood, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, ginseng, peanuts and certain nuts.

Exemptions applying to a wide range of products, including multiple ingredient and processed foods, represent sizeable loopholes. For example, mixed nuts, mixed-greens bagged salad and fruit yogurt need not comply.

informed choice

Shopping is, in the ideal, informed choice that degrades into illusion when relevant information is withheld. Controversies that swirl around modern food production practices make the identification of the foods involved all the more central to both preserving real choice and resolving those controversies.

Absent fully informative food labels, industry and government collude to rob the public of choice and leave them shopping in the dark. The obvious elephant in the room is the fear that an informed public would opt for foods closest to how Mother Nature originally intended.

Visit www.BoogieGreen.com for other environmental health articles by SARAH MOSKO.

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