If Only the Government Knows, Beware

Last week, supermarket chains Kroger Company and Stop & Shop reversed their position: they stopped selling “lean, finely textured beef.” If you’re not familiar with the news stories, you might do a double take. Why would supermarkets stop selling lean beef?

Many of you already know that what they actually decided to stop selling is commonly referred to as pink slime. Pink slime is a low-cost ingredient made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts; these are the last traces of beef that cannot be removed by the butcher’s knife. Most commonly these bits are used in dog food. “The bits are heated to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.”

Pink slime is a potentially dangerous product. If not processed correctly it may contain material from the cow’s central nervous system and thus expose the consumer to potentially dangerous diseases.

You may still be confused. Does the decision to stop selling pink slime reflect a sudden change in consumer demand? Not at all. Until recently consumers simply did not know what they were eating.

Supermarkets have been selling these products for years with healthy sounding names such as Edible Finely Textured Beef (FTB), Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), Premium Black Angus Finely Textured Beef (PBAFTB), Angus Finely Textured Beef (AFTB), Beef Trimmings, Finely Textured (BTFT) and Partially Defatted Chopped Beef (PDCB).

These are legally defined terms concocted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) working in cooperation with beef producers. They understood that with properly labeled products, there would be no demand for human dog food. The terms they adopted obfuscate what is really being sold.

Of course on a free market producers would be and should be free to sell properly labeled food. On a free market, consumers exercise their choices and consumer preferences are revealed. Using food labels such as Lean Finely Textured Beef is fraud. Why is this fraud? The term does not convey what the product really is.

As soon as consumers understood what they were really being sold, demand shrunk to zero. The only potential demand for pink slime is from institutions such as prisons, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes—where consumers are captives and thus have little or no choice.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. On almost every supermarket trip, almost every consumer buys products that contain foreign and adulterated ingredients. The food manufacturers preferred that you do not know.

In 2010 at my blog I asked these questions. Please take a few moments to answer whether the following statements are “true” or “false.”

  1. Your favorite breakfast cereal, cookie or processed food may be manufactured with Chinese ingredients, but the package need not disclose the country of origin.
  2. Your favorite breakfast cereal, cookie or processed food may contain genetically modified ingredients, but the package need not disclose that fact.
  3. If your favorite breakfast cereal, cookie or processed food contains irradiated ingredients, the package must disclose this information.
  4. Dairy products that contain rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), which is a genetically engineered variant of the natural growth hormone produced by cows, must be labeled as such.

The answer to number 1 is true.  In general, food products from foreign countries have to be labeled with their country of origin. Thus, olive oil from Italy is marked as a product of Italy. There is a BIG exception to the labeling requirement for imported foods when those ingredients undergo “substantial transformation.” Makers of processed foods manufactured in the United States with ingredients imported from China do not have to disclose on the label the country of origin of those ingredients.

I used China as an example not to bash China, but because many consumers are concerned about the quality and safety of Chinese ingredients.

The answer to number 2 is true. Not only is the listing of genetically modified ingredients not required, but the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has been taking steps to prohibit food manufacturers from disclosing that their products contain genetically modified ingredients. In 2010 the FDA “told the maker of Spectrum Canola Oil that it could not use a label that included a red circle with a line through it and the words “GMO,” saying the symbol suggested that there was something wrong with genetically engineered food.”

The point is not whether genetically modified ingredients are safe or not safe. Each individual consumer should be free to determine what their food preferences are. Europe and Japan require labeling of genetically modified ingredients. As a consequence, very few products containing genetically modified ingredients are sold in these countries.

The answer to number three is false. Individual foods that have been irradiated must be labeled as having been irradiated. However, if such foods are used to manufacture another product, the end product will not be labeled to inform the consumer. So, the spices in a cookie may be irradiated; but that information does not have to be disclosed on the cookie package. Several times in the past, the FDA has proposed removing the labeling requirements for irradiated individual foods; it has backed away from that position after consumer protests.

The answer to number four is false. For now, manufacturers that label their products as rBGH free must also disclaim “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH supplemented and non-rBGH supplemented cows.” I write “for now” because promoters of rBGH have been trying to ban the labeling of dairy products as rBGH free.

In 2003, Monsanto the maker of rBGH actually sued a small dairy in Maine for labeling their products:  “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones.”

“No significant differences” in products from rBGH treated cows is hardly accurate. Many believe that “rBGH milk is contaminated by pus, due to the mastitis commonly induced by rBGH, and antibiotics used to treat the mastitis. rBGH milk is supercharged with high levels of a natural growth factor (IGF-1), which is readily absorbed through the gut. Excess levels of IGF-1 have been incriminated as a cause of breast, colon, and prostate cancers.”

Whether those beliefs, my beliefs, or your beliefs about rBGH are true or false is not the point. Labeling information allows individual consumers to make their own determination based on their values and their tastes.

Spokespeople such as David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, argue consumers are better off without information. Recently Edwards proclaimed, “Extra labeling only confuses the consumer. It differentiates products that are not different. As we stick more labels on products that don’t really tell us anything more, it makes it harder for consumers to make their choices.”

Using Edwards’s twisted logic, one could argue that the ingredients in food should not be labeled at all; they could argue that only aggregate information such as calories be provided. A future industry spokesperson may argue that one calorie is the same as any other calorie; it doesn’t matter whether your lunch burger calories came from a vegetable or a cow.

Of course Edwards’s twisted logic would mean nothing without the government siding with industry against consumers. Unlabeled food or misleading food labels is really fraud against the consumer. Pink slime, processed food with tainted Chinese ingredients, GMO ingredients, rBGH milk—let the consumer decide. Only with full disclosure is the consumer sovereign.

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