Food Labels and What 'Natural' Really Means

On this week’s Please Explain, Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports, discusses the findings from Consumer Reports' new survey about food labels, and explains what terms like "natural," "fair trade," "genetically engineered," mean. She’ll explain the rules for what food labels can claim, how they can be misleading, what information is missing from labels, and efforts to reform food labels.

“Natural” is one of those labels that is vague, misleading, and just falls so short of what consumers want it to mean,” said Rangan.  Consumers are actually being misled by the natural label. Six out of 10 consumers look for it 68 percent think meat labeled “natural” has no artificial growth hormones; 70 percent think that it means it has no artificial ingredients. People also believe it means there are no GMOs or artificial ingredients in feed, and that the animals went out doors. But “natural” means none of this. Meat labeled all-natural can come from animals raised in confinement and fed GMO feed and antibiotics.

There are almost no standards for the word “natural” on a food label. The definition for “natural” meat is that nothing artificial was added to the cut of meat itself. Water and salt water are considered natural, so meat labeled natural can be pumped up with water and salt water and still carry the label. It indicates nothing about the whole animal and how it was raised.

Meat raised with antibiotics does not need to be labeled that way. The term “antibiotic-free” is not legal for marketing meat. The USDA does allow “no antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.” 

Free range only means that animals have the option to go outdoors, not that they actually spend time outside ranging freely. Ninety-two percent of people who responded to Consumer Reports’ survey say they want animals to be raised and slaughtered humanely and want standards set to guarantee humane treatment of animals. There are currently no such standards.

The fair trade label has to do with worker welfare—how they’re treated and how much they’re making. We’ve seen “fair trade” labels on chocolate, bananas, coffee, things that come from other counties that often have low labor standards. But more and more consumers want the fair trade label applied to products from this country.

The organic label does have strict standards. Organic foods can’t use GMOs, can’t use most synthetic pesticides, and can’t use antibiotics (although there’s a loophole with poultry because organic chicken farmers can obtain chicks from other suppliers who might use antibiotics up until the second day of a chick’s life). There are inspectors and certifiers across the country that perform annual inspections. “It’s one of the most successful sustainability label out there,” she said. Organic foods are grown without most pesticides, which usually means the workers growing and picking organic fruits and vegetables aren’t exposed to toxic chemicals.

There are no standards for organic fish and seafood in the United States, so if you see fish labeled “organic,” don’t trust it. 

There are no  requirements for labeling GMOs. Currently three states—Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut—have passed legislature calling for GMO foods sold in those states to be labeled. Those laws go into effect in the next few years. Many other states have pending legislation or ballot initiatives calling for GMOs to be labeled. GMO’s are required to be labeled in 64 other countries, including the European Union.

What are people looking for on labels? 66 percent of people are looking for locally grown foods. Fifty percent of people are looking for no artificial growth hormones. Consumers also want to know how workers are being treated, how animals are being treated, and whether foods or animal feed contains GMOs. Rangan wants misleading and meaningless labels (like “natural”) to be eliminated and wants better, consistent labels to be applied to foods. She said, “People have a right to know how their food is produced.”