Food labels were designed to earn our trust. Since 1990, the Food and Drug Administration has required manufacturers to list the ingredients of their products, and more recently, "Nutrition Facts" boxes have appeared on everything from cereal to chewing gum.
But as more Americans attempt to make healthy choices about what they put in their bodies, it's becoming increasingly difficult to discern how our food was grown, processed and treated -- thanks to our collective support of a food industry that wields its heft and political clout to create labeling laws that make a mockery of disclosure.
This is a story about a regulatory system increasingly friendly to the notion that consumers aren't smart enough or sufficiently informed to make the "right" choices -- an idea the food industry uses to justify the argument that obfuscating the information on food labels serves some undefined public good. It's also about what happens to our food when industry attempts to achieve economies of scale to meet our expectations that a bag of organic lettuce mix should cost the same as a Yoo-hoo and carry almost as long a shelf life -- not to mention our willingness to believe that everything edible constitutes food.
It's also a story about nomenclature. At some undetectable moment in recent history, modern food parlance parted ways with common standards of forthrightness and left us in an up-is-down world where food manufacturers may soon be able to subject food to ionizing radiation and call it "cold pasteurization," where "chocolate" may not have to actually contain cocoa, and almonds labeled "raw" must be sprayed with a suspected human carcinogen.
In this world, makers of an artificial bovine hormone to increase milk production have used their leverage with regulators to bully dairies that don't use the hormone into cowering away from disclosing on their labels why consumers might want to avoid it. In this world, it is easier and more cost-effective to unleash a mix of genetically modified viruses on lunchmeat for children's sandwiches rather than clean up filthy slaughterhouses. In this world, it is increasingly challenging for consumers desiring to make healthier choices to know which way to turn.
"Raw" almonds aren't, really
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently required that all almonds produced in the United States be pasteurized, including nuts labeled "raw." The rule went into effect Sept. 1, despite protests from health-conscious consumers who prefer unprocessed nuts and small-scale growers who can't afford the equipment, which costs between $500,000 and $2.5 million.
The move follows two Salmonella outbreaks attributed to raw almonds in 2001 and 2004. Critics of the rule point out that both incidents were the result of faulty practices at large-scale commercial farms. Small-scale and sustainable practices -- including mowing and mulching to control weeds, instead of using chemical herbicides -- naturally prevent the spread of harmful bacteria more effectively than post-harvest treatment, they say.
The Almond Board of California, a governing body representing all almond growers in the state, pushed for the change. Small growers complain that the board disproportionately represents the needs of the large producers.
A spokesman for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service says that the agency simply responded to the almond board's request. "We basically move at the behest of industry," spokesman Jimmie Turner says. "If the industry calls and says they want a standard or a marketing order, we take that request, and normally we do what's called a notice in the Federal Register. We seek public comment, and based on that comment, there can be a marketing order established."
The same process is followed for all foodstuffs, Turner says.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group leading a campaign to convince the USDA to overturn the pasteurization rule, contends that labeling treated almonds as "raw" is deceptive. More than that, the group argues that it epitomizes the industrialization of our food supply.
"This is just the opening salvo of corporate agribusiness wanting to sanitize all of our food," says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute. The impetus, Kastel says, is the economics of large-scale production. In many cases, such operations utilize growing and cultivation methods that provide much greater opportunity for contamination.
"After the fact, they want to use these technologies ... so they can sanitize our food supply, but it will do great damage to our food and, because of the infrastructure costs, will put out of business small and high-quality growers and independent processors," Kastel added.
To comply with the regulation, almond producers can either steam the nuts or fumigate them with propylene oxide (PPO), the almond board's preferred process. PPO is recognized as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is banned in the European Union, Canada, Mexico -- and much of the rest of the world.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of foods treated with the fumigant, and while packages of almonds may contain the disclaimer "pasteurized," there isn't likely to be any indication by which process the nuts were treated.
The only way consumers will be able to distinguish how their "raw" almonds were pasteurized is by the organic label. Regulations mandate that foods bearing the "organic" seal cannot be treated with PPO.
The forces against organic: profit and politics
Examples of the regulated controlling the regulators -- like almond producers writing their own rules -- are rampant up and down the American food chain.
The USDA recently announced that 38 non-organic ingredients will be allowed in "organic" food. Reading the labels, consumers will be none the wiser. But the new rule is actually an improvement over previous ambiguity, as now manufacturers will be limited to using the ingredients that the National Organic Program (NOP) has determined are "commercially unavailable."
Since the inception of the federal labeling program, foods labeled "USDA Organic" have been able to contain up to 5 percent non-organic ingredients. That 5 percent comprises ingredients not available in an organic form. The recent action was an effort to codify exactly which ingredients can be substituted with conventional versions in products that bear the seal, and the result will likely be fewer non-organic ingredients in "organic" food.
Although the action was controversial and remains so in the grassroots organic community [see "Getting a Head in Organics," at left], in many ways the updated regulations are not nearly as significant as the congressional action taken last year that permitted more than 500 synthetic food additives and processing aids in organic food without labeling or public review.
The language was inserted as a rider to the 2006 Agriculture appropriations bill. No hearings were held on the change. It passed despite more than 350,000 letters and phone calls to federal lawmakers, according to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).
"The process was profoundly undemocratic and the end result is a serious setback for the multibillion-dollar alternative food and farming system that the organic community has so painstakingly built up over the past 35 years," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of OCA.
The 2006 controversy parallels a fight in 2003, when Congress inserted a provision into a spending bill that would have allowed meat and poultry producers to label their products "organic" even if the animals were fed conventional feed -- if the price of organic feed exceeded a certain level. The exception was later repealed. Cummins hopes to bring the same fate upon the synthetics loophole or at least significantly curtail its reach.
To groups such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Cornucopia Institute, there is a principle at stake. Individuals pay more for organic food because they want to support sustainable farming practices and avoid consuming petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides as well as hormones and antibiotics and synthetic ingredients. The whole reason the National Organic Standards were created was to assure buyers they were getting what they paid for, but the integrity of the standards have been under industry assault since their implementation five years ago.
Hormone-free milk? Can't say
It's one thing for a manufacturer to avoid disclosure about a product's ingredients. It's quite another to prevent another company from providing information to its customers, but that is exactly what Monsanto has been up to. The biotech giant is the sole producer of artificial growth hormones given to cows to increase milk production.
A growing grassroots backlash over the use of hormones has prompted restaurant chains such as Chipotle to pledge to use only dairy products free of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as bovine somatotropin (BST). Grocery chains Kroger, Publix and Safeway also have restricted their private-label milk to that from cows not given the drug, although Safeway has thus far made the move only in the Pacific Northwest. Starbucks has indicated that all of its coffee shops will be rBGH-free by early 2008.
Despite studies -- many funded by Monsanto -- indicating that the growth hormone is safe, questions about the injections' implications for human health have persisted since its approval in 1993. Milk produced by cows given the drug contains elevated amounts of insulin-like growth factor, which some studies have shown to increase the risk of breast, colon and prostate cancers. (No direct link has been shown between milk from cows given the hormone and increased cancer rates.)
The hormones are banned in every other industrialized country. If Monsanto has its way, it will become increasingly difficult for American consumers to even determine whether it is in their milk and what that might mean for their health. As it stands, the FDA doesn't require milk from cows treated with the hormone to be labeled at all.
Monsanto told its investors last November that growing demand of "rBGH-free" milk could affect the company's bottom line. A couple of months later, the company petitioned the FDA to issue "stronger guidance" regarding milk producers' indications on the carton that their milk is free of the artificial growth hormone.
Under 1994 guidance from the FDA -- which approved the use of rBGH and maintains that it's completely safe -- most dairy processors that market milk from cows not treated with the hormone include a disclaimer on the label indicating that "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows." Monsanto asked the agency to revisit the issue, as the company deems that this disclaimer is not enough to "balance" what it asserts are deceptive claims by producers that milk from cows not treated with the hormones is healthier.
The company also petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to take action on grounds that milk processors "mislead customers by falsely claiming that there are health and safety risks associated with milk from rBST-supplemented cows."
In response, the FDA reaffirmed its commitment to the current guidance for labeling rBGH milk. The FTC requested that several companies amend the way they label milk from cows free of the artificial hormone. The companies complied, according to Monsanto.
To Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, the premise upon which Monsanto petitioned the FDA and the FTC is absurd. Monsanto claims that the two milks are identical and that companies implying health attributes to milk from cows free of the hormone are somehow misleading their customers. Cummins says those claims are demonstrably false.
"There is a difference, that's why it's patented. There is a difference, that's why it's banned in much of the industrialized world. There is a different amino acid chain at the end," Cummins says.
Milk naturally contains a bovine growth hormone, but the rBGH is synthetically engineered and has a different chemical composition, he explains.
The FDA maintains there is no difference in milk from cows treated with the artificial hormone and those that are not, but Cummins says that's because the agency is not testing for it. He says the agency has admitted at various points that a dozen chromatography machines around the country have detected its presence in the milk.
A Monsanto spokesman says the FDA has not conveyed any such information to the company and that such allegations run contrary to the "FDA's very voluminous ruling on this matter." Both the FDA and Monsanto assert that there is no "compositional" difference between milk from cows treated with the hormone and cows that are not.
Either way, Cummins says, the agency is flouting the law and its own regulations.
"You are not supposed to get an animal drug approved unless you have a detection plan for it, the idea being that if you legalize an antibiotic in animal feed, they want to be able to test to make sure that there is not a dangerous level of antibiotics in the milk," he says.
In Monsanto's view, the distinction is that rBGH is a hormone, not an antibiotic or pesticide.
The fact sheet provided by the FDA explains that long-term research to assess the safety of rBGH was unnecessary because studies demonstrated that bovine growth hormone "is biologically inactive in humans even if injected," the artificial version is "orally inactive" and the natural hormone and the artificially created version are "biologically indistinguishable."
FDA spokesman Michael Herdon declined to comment on the issue further, stating that the "FDA's current position on rBGH is well-documented."
The issue of antibiotics is a whole other subject. According to Cummins, the FDA rarely tests milk or meat for antibiotics given "off-label."
"Veterinarians can sell a drug to a farmer that is not approved for that use," Cummins says. "Europeans are appalled that U.S. dairy farmers have access to 50 to 100 antibiotics, whereas [the FDA] only tests for four."
Chocolate by any other name?
The FDA is also currently pondering a somewhat sweeter question: What makes "chocolate" chocolate? The dark delectable has long been understood as a confection made from crushed cacao beans, which provide the solid cocoa mass, as well as cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is responsible for the "melt in your mouth" goodness.
Trouble is, cacao beans are expensive, and industrial chocolate manufacturers have petitioned the FDA to allow them to replace the cocoa butter with cheaper fats and still call the resulting edible "chocolate." Cocoa butter has become increasingly prized for cosmetics and lotions, so the companies could make a bigger buck selling it for skin creams.
The petition came as part of a block of more than 200 proposed changes to food standards requested by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. In response to widespread press coverage, much of it negative, the FDA released a statement indicating that cacao fat, "as one of the signature characteristics of the product, will remain a principal component." What it didn't say, however, was just how much cocoa butter manufacturers will be able to substitute with vegetable oil and still call their product "chocolate."
A theme of nondisclosure
The number of ingredients, processes and modifications not disclosed on food labels is long and growing.
Just in the past year, the FDA has determined that meat from cloned animals can be allowed in the human food supply without disclosure.
And the agency also recently announced that manufacturers of deli meats are free to spray ham, bologna, salami and the like with a mix of six genetically modified viruses to combat potential contamination with Listeria, a bacteria that makes deli meats one of the top contributors to food-borne illnesses in the United States.
Consumer groups have criticized the USDA for years for failing to get meat processors to clean up the plants so that Listeria and other microorganisms couldn't find a hospitable home in foods commonly served to children without further cooking. Instead the FDA decided to let the companies spray the meats with viruses engineered to consume the potentially harmful bacteria.
"Who knows what these things do?" asks Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which helps people return to traditional and whole-food diets. "They could be toxic in their own right, and it's no substitute for cleaning up their act."
Also in the meat case, the federal government has declined to intervene in the now-widespread practice of "modified atmospheric packaging," whereby "fresh" meat is preserved with carbon monoxide and other gases. Meats packaged in polystyrene trays with plastic wrap have a shelf life of less than a week, but gas packing allows beef to stay bright red for weeks or even months. Trouble is, the meat may look fresh without actually being fresh. Last year Consumer Reports found that three out of 10 gas-packed ground beef samples had spoiled by their use-by date, even though the meat still appeared red.
There are no disclosure requirements for the use of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen to preserve the appearance of meat. However, consumers can tell whether their beef, poultry or pork was packaged that way if there is a taut plastic seal that does not touch the meat.
Foods produced using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have never required labeling, even though studies in animals have shown them to cause tissue damage, kidney and liver toxicity, sterility, neurotoxicity, aggression and early death. Little to no research on their long-term safety in humans has been conducted. Genetically modified strains now comprise the majority of the corn and soy grown in the United States.
The FDA is also considering a rule that would allow manufacturers to irradiate food as a way to remove pathogens and call the process "cold pasteurization" or "electronic pasteurization." There would be no indication to consumers that the product was subjected to ionizing radiation.
"What the industry has found is that requiring labeling of irradiation means that stores don't want to sell it," Cummins says. "Cold pasteurization sounds fairly natural compared to irradiation."
According to Cummins, the issues of genetically modified foods and irradiation are inextricably linked from a regulatory perspective. In 1986, when the FDA proposed regulations to allow irradiation and decided to require labeling, scientists at the agency acknowledged that benzene, formaldehyde and other unique radiolytic compounds produced by irradiation had never before been seen in food.
"There is plenty of evidence out there that irradiation changes food in an alarming way, and the reason the FDA was caused to require labeling in the first place was because it changes the nature of the food," Cummins explains. He cites a study done by the Council of Medical Research in India, which showed that children fed irradiated wheat for six weeks had chromosomal damage not exhibited in control groups.
Six years later, when it came time to determine whether genetically modified foods would have to be labeled as such, the agency "made the stunning scientific pronouncement that they were substantially equivalent, which they were not able to uphold with irradiated food." The determination meant that labeling would not be required.
"When the scientists said there were substantial changes in the foods, they had to follow the statute," which requires disclosure for foods that meet that criteria, Cummins says. "Then a few years later they realized that we better not do that again. They don't have a leg to stand on scientifically, but they have just used the power of the FDA and corporate America to not label GMOs."
Suzanne Nelson is a writer with the Independent Weekly, where this story first appeared.