Friday, February 22, 2013

The Label Game

Labels lie - whether it's meat labeled beef which is actually horse, pig, and donkey, or whether it's salmon labeled "wild" which is actually farmed. This last example was revealed today in a survey conducted by the international ocean conservation group Oceana:

Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide

Oceana found that about one-third of the 1,215 fish samples it purchased from 2010 to 2012 were mislabeled. Also:
  • In the 120 samples labeled red snapper, 28 different species of fish were found, including 17 that were not even in the snapper family. Only 7 of the 120 samples of red snapper were actually red snapper.
  • In New York, fish that was not really tuna was being passed off as tuna in 94 percent of the samples taken.
  • Almost two-thirds of “wild” salmon samples were found actually to be farmed Atlantic salmon, which is considered less healthy and less environmentally sustainable.
  • Tilefish — known for its mercury content and on federal advisory lists for sensitive populations to avoid — was sold as red snapper and halibut.

While consumers are wringing their hands over whether to believe the labels on beef and fish, the FDA has been wringing its hands over whether to approve, with or without a label, genetically engineered (GE) salmon. In a possibly unprecedented move last week, the FDA extended its comment period by 60 days in order to invite further feedback and process the deluge of public comments on the production of AquaAdvantage's GE salmon.

It makes me wonder how much it matters - the label. If farmed salmon is today getting passed off as wild, why would it not be conceivable that GE salmon would get passed off as non-GE? California's Proposition 37 in last November's election - which mandated that food containing GE ingredients be labeled as such (it didn't pass) - also seems like a moot move. Most corn and soy in this country is already GE. The label doesn't buy you much. Probably an opt-out label (like non-GMO or USDA Organic) would be more telling. Even then, the USDA Organic label is only 95% organic, and may degrade further if thoughts to allow GMOs in the definition come to fruition.

What might improve the integrity of a label would be regulations and enforcement, e.g. more inspections. It looks like we're going in the opposite direction:

USDA to Let Industry Self-Inspect Chicken
"The USDA hopes to save $85 million over three years by laying off 1,000 government inspectors and turning over their duties to company monitors who will staff the poultry processing lines in plants across the country."
Does that sound like a good idea? I can't imagine that the private sector cares as much about public health as the public sector. But if reducing federal spending and downsizing government were the objective, this may be a good idea.

Speaking of downsizing government ... I think the austerity measures across Europe will impact our food supply. We import 80% of our seafood and inspect only 1%. That 80% will likely see fewer inspections. Food producers and distributors will take more shortcuts and not be found out, which is already happening, e.g. cheaper meat from horses and pigs were sold as beef for a profit, and not many people noticed. (Does anyone know why Ireland's Food Standards Agency decided to test beef DNA in the first place?) The confluence of globalization of our food supply with austerity measures won't bode well for the quality and safety of food.


caulfieldkid said...

"The confluence of globalization of our food supply with austerity measures won't bode well for the quality and safety of food."

That's a long, long conversation.

I couldn't help, after reading this post, thinking back to the book you read on the meat packing district ... There's a notion that we've progressed far from that type of food industry, but have we?


Bix said...

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I learned a lot from that little book.

I think problems occurred when food production was scaled up, industrialized, at the turn of the century. I think the emergence of the FDA (its precursor at least) at that time did improve food quality. Now though there's another scaling up, if you will - in the globalization of food. Lots of opportunity for corruption.

I'm reading this:

Organised crime and the efforts to combat it: a concern for public health

The paper:

"...looks at the effect of globalisation on integrating supply chains from poorly-regulated and impoverished source regions through to their distant markets, often via disparate groups of organised criminals who have linked across their traditional territories for mutual benefit and enhanced profit, with both traditional and newly-created linkages between production, distribution and retail functions of cooperating criminal networks from different cultures. It discusses the interactions between criminals and the structures of the state which enable illegal and socially undesirable activities to proceed on a massive scale through corruption and subversion of regulatory mechanisms."

Bix said...

Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey

"The Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey."
"It’s no secret to anyone in the business that the only reason all the pollen is filtered out is to hide where it initially came from and the fact is that in almost all cases, that is China."
"Ultra-filtration ... is a deceptive, illegal, unethical practice."
"Chinese honey [has been] contaminated with chloramphenicol and other illegal animal antibiotics which are dangerous, even fatal, to a very small percentage of the population."
"Many in the honey industry and some in FDA’s import office say they doubt that FDA checks more than 5 percent of all foreign honey shipments."
"In many cases, consumers would have an easier time deciphering state secrets than pinning down where the honey they’re buying in groceries actually came from."
"I think we need a truth in labeling law in the U.S. as they have in other countries."