13 min read

8 misleading food labels you won’t fall for again

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As a result of highly publicised food scandals (from Turkey Twizzlers to horse meat, to E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella) and growing consumer concern for animal welfare, the food industry has come under pressure to restore our confidence in the products on our supermarket shelves. While staying firmly on its problematic industrial course, it has responded with marketing ploys aiming to silence our doubts and perpetuate our shopping habits. Reassuring labels with a feel-good factor have flourished, seemingly re-establishing a lost connection with authenticity, but actually widening the gap between our largely romanticised vision of the food we buy and the often questionable ways in which it is produced.

Here are eight examples of misleading labels which, by the end of this article, should have lost any power to fool you :

1."Natural" – The term conjures up reassuring pastoral scenes, but merely refers to processing levels. It describes food containing ingredients derived from nature rather than the work of man, but says nothing about conditions of production. For example, "natural" dairy products should be manufactured solely from milk and be free from other ingredients or additives (such as preservatives or flavourings). In other words, they should be plain. But the milk may still have come from an industrial farm operating "zero-grazing" systems where cows are kept permanently indoors and suffer high levels of lameness and mastitis – not something most consumers would consider "natural".

2. "Fresh" – Again, the term brings to mind comforting rural images, especially when it is used in phrases with an emotive appeal such as "farm fresh". Yet there's a good chance the products this label is slapped on haven't come from anything resembling your idea of a farm. All the term really means is that they are being sold shortly after production, are being held under chilled conditions at point of sale, and have a limited shelf life. The healthy connotations of the label can be in stark contrast with the unwholesome environment from which the products came. For example, "fresh" pork has the advantage of being raw rather than chemically preserved, but it may be from pigs which were kept on concrete floors in barren, crowded enclosures where they had to be tail-docked so they wouldn't bite each other's tails out of boredom and frustration.

3. "Pure" – "Pure" means made from one single ingredient to which nothing has been added. But of course "pure" also has wholesome and ethical connotations. Yet "pure" chicken, for instance, may be from birds which were kept in vast windowless sheds where they developed hock burns from sitting in their own faeces (the litter in a chicken shed is not usually cleaned out during the 40-day production cycle).

4. "British" – This one I find particularly objectionable. Where food is produced and processed in the same country, country of origin labelling is not an issue. But where food is produced in one country and processed in another, origin labelling is generally based on place of processing. This means that bacon cured in Britain from Danish pork can lawfully be labelled British bacon, or that sausages made in Britain from Polish beef can be labelled British. Now I'm pretty sure that, in most people's minds, "British bacon" comes from pigs reared and slaughtered in Britain. This is particularly worrying in light of the fact that a significant proportion of the meat sold in the UK comes from countries which have weaker standards of animal welfare and where practices which are banned in the UK are still legal (under WTO rules, a member cannot block imports on the grounds that these were produced according to animal welfare standards contravening its own national laws).

5. "Red Tractor" – This label certifies that an item was produced in Britain to certain safety, hygiene and environmental standards. But it guarantees little more than compliance with minimum legislation when it comes to animal welfare. This means that "Red Tractor" milk may be from cows living permanently indoors and whose calves are exported to countries where they are raised inhumanely, or that "Red Tractor" chicken may be from birds whose unnaturally fast growth rates caused them to suffer from severe lameness.

6. "Lion quality" – Associated with a recognisable logo, the word "quality" has a convincing authoritative ring to it. But to a lot of people quality includes decent animal welfare standards, and really the value of the label is limited to food safety criteria. In terms of animal welfare, all it means is that the eggs it sanctions were produced according to the UK's minimum legal requirements, which is not much of a guarantee. Eggs labelled "Lion quality" may be from hens confined in so-called "enriched" cages, where each hen can have no more usable floor space than the equivalent of an A4 sheet of paper. It does mean, however, that the eggs were laid in Britain, so they shouldn't have been produced to anything lower than this already low standard.

7. "Corn-fed" – If only I had a penny for every time that, during the course of a conversation about animal welfare issues, someone has reassured me that they only buy "corn-fed" chicken. Corn-fed chicken might be more tasty, but it isn't healthier (unless it is stated that the corn was GM-free, it probably wasn't), and it certainly doesn't mean that the chickens enjoyed better quality of life. Whether you feed an industrial chicken corn or a cheaper kind of feed, it is still living in crowded, unhygienic indoor conditions.

8. "Outdoor-bred" – This is particularly misleading. The mention of "outdoor" suggests animals roaming freely, and thus creates a thought association with free-range conditions. But while "outdoor-bred" pigs are born outside and kept there until weaning (i.e. for just a few weeks), they are then fattened indoors, and so they spend most of their lives in sheds. "Outdoor-bred" is therefore very different from "outdoor-reared", which means that pigs are born outside and stay there for half of their lives before being moved indoors. (Breeding sows are kept outdoors for all of their productive lives in both systems – a major benefit of the labels which I don't mean to downplay.) Now can the average consumer be expected to know this? Of course not, and I think that's precisely why the food industry uses this label.

In short, unless you choose organic (for example Soil Association), free-range or Freedom Food meat, eggs and dairy, you can be almost certain that you are buying into industrial production conditions which involve animal suffering. It doesn't make any difference how "natural" or "fresh" or "pure" the products claim to be.

In the EU, 90% of pigs reared for meat are housed in barren industrial systems, 90% of chickens reared for meat spend their entire lives indoors, and 70% of hens are confined in cages. So it is little wonder that the industry puts so much effort into its marketing. Sadly, it seems to have the law on its side: not only is it allowed not to inform – there no legal requirement for food to be clearly labelled according to the conditions under which it is produced (e.g. "from caged hens", or "from pigs reared exclusively indoors"); but it is also allowed to misinform –by using labels which, in the absence of compulsory labelling according to method of production, confuse and deceive.

Perhaps the most cynical aspect of this marketing is that, as well as keeping consumers in the dark, it exploits their willingness to do better by the animals they eat. Many people purposefully pick products carrying labels that they feel must guarantee better animal welfare standards, but which actually only serve to maintain the status quo benefitting agribusiness and failing animals.

Hélène O'Donnell, www.heleneodonnell.com