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Thoughts from the Farm: Marketing Claims

Hello friends and local food eaters,

We hope you are enjoying good health on these first days of spring!

I noticed an interesting claim on my kids' cereal box.

Our kids eat cereal as a special treat, like dessert. Or in the event of an early departure, it is a quick breakfast with extra protein like collagen or grassfed whey in the milk.

I often study the back of the boxes, intrigued with the picture that is being painted. No matter who the manufacturer is, whether a smaller organic company or General Mills (and perhaps the likes of General Mills owns them all anyway), it seems that they are just oozing wholesome nutritional goodness, produced lovingly, beneficial for farmers and the environment, and for sure using recycled packaging. There are all kinds of specific claims: free of GMOs, gluten-free, high fructose corn syrup free, nut free, allergen free, etc. etc. And then there are what I'd call... "reach claims". Like this one:

Hmmm. Interesting. I would not agree that "the less salt you eat, the healthier you are." is even close to true for most of the people most of the time; however, there it is, in sentence form, as a fact.

How much does the marketing on labels influence our understanding of food, our food psychology and habits, and certainly our buying choices?

It got me thinking about packaging claims for foods and how they can be subtly deceptive.

For example with chicken and eggs, I'm sure you local food eaters all have heard and understand that "free range" doesn't typically mean free ranging outside, as one would infer. The USDA definition of free range means they "have access to the outside." This labelling terminology is regulated, approved, and used primarily by commercial warehouses in which the chickens are not individually caged, and have access to a small concrete pad or other outdoor loafing area, which meets the requirement to outdoor access.

I will spare you the images of actual industrial "free range" chicken houses. But I do love this infographic:

Another example of vague and potentially misleading wording on labels are the health claims on supplements, which are legally allowed to say anything they want to. According to the FDA, "The manufacturer is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and truthfulness of these claims; they are not approved by FDA.". Hence the ubiquitous label: "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) is responsible for inspecting meat, poultry, and eggs, while the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is responsible for the rest - mostly packaged, processed foods - which account for about 80% of the American food supply. Brooks and I thought that the USDA was in charge of "high risk", or perishable food items, but on further looking into it, it is not so clean cut as that, as the FDA inspects seafood, dairy, produce (with the exception of Organic!), as well as "exotic" meats.

Apparently, FDA packaging claim requirements are not as strictly regulated as those of the USDA. Rather, there is a lot more room for creativity. While there are specific rules and regulations about ingredients, nutrient labelling, and size/placement of product names and brands, this still leaves a whole open world of product differentiation and marketing.

Our experience

With our sausage labels, it took 2 years to get them USDA approved. They went back and forth between us and the approval process, and our designer over and over again.

Nearly all of our preferred wording was brought into question and denied approval. We couldn't say "english style." We were not allowed to use the phrase "pastured pork". We were required to state "federal regulations prohibit use of hormones in pork". The wording of the allergen declaration, as well as nitrate information was very strict. We were not allowed to put "non-GMO" anywhere on the product.

On one hand, I'm glad that there are such stringent requirements at least for the USDA branch of the government food regulations. That may prevent outright fraudulent claims.

However, food sales and marketing is a huge industry whose rules and practices are at times arbitrary and definitely not universally agreed upon. GMOs, food pyramid and dietary guidelines, acceptable synthetic additives: these are among some of the contents and labelling issues currently in hot debate in our food products.

Clearly, it is our responsibility as consumers to be savvy label readers.

I am super grateful for requirements of all ingredients to be listed. This allows us to be cognizant of our food choices, if we choose to.

We get to inform ourselves of what ingredients are, where they come from, and what our values are about them.

In good health,

~Brooks and Anna

More Resources:

"What are the requirements to use the word “Healthy”? Answer: You may use the term “healthy” or related terms as an implied nutrient content claim on the label or in labeling of a food that is useful in creating a diet that is consistent with dietary recommendations if the food meets the conditions for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients".

"How is dietary guidance provided for on food labels? Answer: Truthful, non-misleading dietary guidance statements may be used on food labels, and do not undergo pre-review by FDA. However, once the food is marketed with the statement, FDA can consider whether the statement meets the requirement to be truthful and not misleading. Section 403(a) of the FD&C Act FDA, as part of its recent Better Nutrition Information for Consumer Health Initiative, recognized that scientifically sound and non-misleading dietary guidance statements may be useful to consumers when placed on food labels."

"What is aHealth Claim? Answer: Health claim means any claim made on the label or in labeling of a food, including a dietary supplement, that expressly or by implication, including “third party” references, written statements (e.g., a brand name including a term such as “heart”), symbols (e.g., a heart symbol), or vignettes, characterizes the relationship of any substance to a disease or health-related condition. Implied health claims include those statements, symbols, vignettes, or other forms of communication that suggest, within the context in which they are presented, that a relationship exists between the presence or level of a substance in the food and a disease or health-related condition (see 21 CFR 101.14(a)(1))."

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