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Originally published Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Deciphering the fine print in food labels

Food labels don't always mean everything consumers might expect.

How to know your terms

Here are a few food labels and what they do, and don't, mean:

Certified Organic: A term regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Requirements include being free of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for at least three years. No genetically modified materials, no antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones or irradiation are allowed. Up to 5 percent of a Certified Organic product can be nonorganic additives from an approved list.

Certified Humane: A nonprofit organization provides its label to farmers and producers who meet its standards, available online, including these: Pigs must be free to turn around in their stalls. Calves cannot be weaned off milk or milk replacement until they are at least 5 weeks old (www.certifiedhumane.org).

Natural: The USDA requires meat and poultry labeled "natural" to contain no artificial ingredients or added colors, and to be minimally processed. ("Plumping" with water or chicken broth is OK.) For anything else, noted the Consumer Ally advocate column on AOL, Natural is an abused term that "should send your B.S. meter spinning."

United Egg Producer Certified: An industry label whose guidelines include the following: Caged birds must each have between 67 and 86 square inches of space. Eggs labeled "free-range" must be from hens that have at least some access to the outdoors, though they don't actually need to go outdoors.

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photographed by Mike Siegel

CHICKENS CAN win "United Egg Producers Certification" even when they're caged in a space smaller than a sheet of paper. Life is better if they're labeled "Certified Humane," but even those birds might never see the outdoors. Then there's the chicken labeled "Natural," which could still be "plumped" with broth, not to mention the synthetic amino acid allowed in the feed of "Certified Organic" chickens, one of more than 200 permissible nonorganic additives.

Food labels don't always mean everything consumers might expect. In the cases above, though, organizations or governmental agencies oversee specific rules. All it takes is looking up the fine print.

It gets tougher, though, with "sustainable." That's the label du jour of modern farms and restaurants, as alluring and ephemeral as Cinnabon scents piped through the mall.

The bad part of sustainable: While Congress once approved a 79-word definition of sustainable, it never turned its lofty phrases into a practical blueprint. The government has no explicit rules for how to farm sustainably, and no penalties for, say, calling your endangered bluefin tuna a sustainable catch.

"You have to ask 'What does that mean?' " says Cindy Krepky of Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation.

Then, there's the sunny side: At its best, asking questions — or visiting a farm, as Cindy and husband David encourage customers to do — can reveal business practices that are more natural-with-a-small-n, more organic-with-a-small-o, than any requirements on the books.

At Dog Mountain, sustainability is a web of causes and effects. It starts with diversity: Heirloom fruit trees line the orchards, and fields and greenhouses are filled with everything from broccoli starts to a tiny olive tree. Building the soil quality is a top concern. Draft horses contribute muscles and manure. There are no herbicides, chemical pesticides or fertilizers, no genetically modified seeds. Loping dogs, rather than guns or poison, keep away predators like coyotes and bears.

In some ways it sounds like an organic farm. But sustainable "is a whole different level," Cindy Krepky says.

Organic doesn't mean humane, for instance, and Dog Mountain's wandering birds live in a roomy world that feels irrelevant to the line-by-line specifications of even the humane certifications.

With chickens, Krepky raised one batch of mass-market broilers and found them "depressing" birds. She prefers the personality of her Freedom Ranger chickens, which take three times as long to reach slaughter weight (and therefore cost three times as much to feed). They're killed and processed right on the farm in a facility approved by the state Department of Agriculture — itself a major hurdle in the world of sustainability. Pieces of infrastructure like local slaughterhouses have disappeared along with farmland.

The farm has to be sustainable financially as well, which means the chickens no longer get organic feed. It costs two to three times the price of conventional feed, Krepky says, and they couldn't find high-quality material even at that.

"Getting to a sustainable farm is something we're continuing to do," she says. A truly sustainable farm, for instance, would be a closed system, growing its own feed and grain.

Certified organic foods, with their government-backed guarantees, command a price premium. Why not go that route, paying the fees and doing the required paperwork?

Customers at farmers markets often say they want to make sure Dog Mountain isn't using pesticides and herbicides, David Krepky says, but beyond that most don't seem to care about the paperwork. Asking the questions directly, visiting firsthand, serves as their own form of fine print.

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance food writer and blogger. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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