Looking for the truth in food labeling


When the nearby link of a national grocery chain hosted a beef sale last summer, this carnivore grabbed his checkbook and motored to the store’s meatcase as fast as the Exploder’s worn wheel bearings allowed.

They’re Angus

At the store I was greeted with a ruby wave of shrink-wrapped beef loins sporting stickers that announced their Angus origins. Nowhere, however, could I find the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grading stamp on any of the packages.

Excuse me, I said to the man in a white smock behind the counter, are these loins Choice or Select?

“They’re Angus,” he replied.

I can see that, but what’s their grade — Choice or Select?

“They’re Angus,” he repeated.

That’s a breed, I explained, it’s not a USDA grade. (This appeared to be news to the person who appeared to be a butcher.)

“Look,” he said as he walked away, “they’re Angus.”

I, too, walked away because I will not spend 100 bucks — or even 10 bucks — for a rack of rib-eyes without a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grade stamp. Call me crazy, but if you can’t tell me what you’re selling, I ain’t buying.

That’s “smart,” agree the folks behind the Certified Angus Beef program. According to the CAB website, “‘USDA Inspected’ on the label may sound dandy, but be smart. If it doesn’t say Select, Choice or Prime on the sticker, it usually means the product received a Standard grade.” (www.certifiedangusbeef.com/brand/grades.php)

The information

As such, no grade — no information — should mean no sale to “smart” consumers. But all information isn’t always informative. After all, a breed of cattle isn’t a grade of beef.

That seems to be logic behind the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute’s challenge to renewed efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to inform consumers on what’s in the food they’re buying before they buy it.

The face-off is over information the Food and Drug Administration wants to list on the front of food packages. The Food and Drug Administration, with the strong backing of First Foodie Michelle Obama, wants labels to list “nutrients that consumers might want to avoid, like sodium, calories and fat,” reported the Jan. 25 New York Times.

Labeling differences

Not surprisingly, Big Food prefers voluntary labels that de-emphasize anything which could be viewed as less-than-healthy. It favors labels that “highlight beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and protein.”

The problem with Big Food’s plan is that it’s more a marketing scheme than a labeling plan. As such, the Food and Drug Administration believes it will sow confusion, not clarity, in food purchasers.

Or, as an Obama Administration official anonymously explained to the Times, “(I)ce cream would be deemed healthy because it would have calcium in it” and, under the industry’s proposal, the new label could tout that fact front-and-center.

Big Food, of course, isn’t big stupid; it’s hanging its plan on the First Lady’s well-regarded — and, so far, successful — push to link healthy food with healthier children.

“We would not be here today if she had not defined the common objective,” noted the Grocery Manufacturers Jan. 24 news release in announcing their plan to challenge the Food and Drug Administration labels.

No, they wouldn’t. But the healthy bus is headed at ’em so now they want to grab the wheel, according to the Times, in this “tug of war to convey important nutrition facts in simple, easy-to-understand way on the front of packaged foods.”

Farmers’ stake

Farmers and ranchers have a fork in this fight. All farm and commodity groups proudly claim their members produce the best food in the world for the most affluent market in the world.

Great. So let’s proclaim that quality and wholesomeness with clear, honest labels to, hopefully, claim a larger share of that affluence. At the very least, let’s not make it more confusing.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com


  1. Thank you — just found your blog today via the Community Farm Alliance in KY. Obama promised during his campaign that he would see to it that labels would identify GMOs in food. Gee, I wonder if that will happen?


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