People demand readily available information in all aspects of their lives. So, it is no surprise that consumers demand that same level of information when it comes to their food. Food labels are one of the avenues consumers get information about the food they choose to purchase. Therefore, it is important to understand these labels, what they mean and who regulates them, in order to make the most informed decision for a household.
Some of the most commonly seen food labels include Organic, Natural, and Non-Genetically Modified (Non-GMO). In addition, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) continues to be a label of interest particularly in meat production. In order to qualify for one of these labels, products must meet specific guidelines set forth by either the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, or a combination of the two agencies.
For a product to be labeled “Natural” no artificial or synthetic ingredients may be added. USDA specifically prohibits the prescense of artificial flavor, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives in products that carry the Natural label. USDA and FDA do allow minimal processing to make food safe for human consumption, preservation, or processes that do not alter the raw product.
In order to label a product as “Organic” it must be produced and processed according to the National Organic Program standards under 7 C.F.R. Part 205. Not only does this program require that the final product meet USDA Organic standards, but all producers and processors who have been in contact with the product must meet the standard as well.
Currently there are four approved organic labels:
“100 Percent Organic”
- These products are produced using wholly organic ingredients and cannot contain nonorganic ingredients or additives. This is the only Organic label that may contain a USDA seal as “100% Organic”.
- Products labeled “Organic” must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
“Made with Organic Ingredients”
- These product contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
If a product contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients the label can only specify the organic ingredient(s) present in the product in the ingredients statement.
Non-GMO(Non-Genetically Modified Organisms)
The federal government does not require products to be labeled as GMO if they are produced with or contain genetically modified components. Further, GMO labeling is not regulated by any federal government agency like Natural and Organic labeling. Three states (Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut), however, have passed GMO labeling laws. There is a major debate as to whether GMO labels should be mandatory or voluntary and who should regulate them.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
A Country of Origin label identifies where a product was produced from birth or planting to final packaging. The 2002 Farm Bill required retail level country of origin labeling (COOL) for ground and muscle cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, as well as farm-raised fish, wild fish, shellfish, peanuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables. A 2016 appropriations bill modified this to remove the requirement for muscle cuts of beef and pork after World Trade Organization challenges.
The most recent 2016 regulation applies COOL to lamb, chicken, and goat meat, perishable agricultural commodities, macadamia nuts, pecans, peanuts, and ginseng. COOL does not require these items to be labeled if they are only ingredients in processed food.
COOL is a heavily debated topic in agriculture because while it would provide transparency to consumers and highlight U.S. products, it may also have trade implications as well that could be detrimental to markets.