Food: What is in a name?

Mar 7, 2014

In Shakespeare’s famous play of star-crossed lovers, titular Juliet argues that a thing’s name isn’t important, but rather what a thing is at heart. Despite her heartfelt—and often quoted—assertion that names are irrelevant regarding roses’ sweetness and Romeo’s lovability, the modern day food world disagrees. Names—or at least labels—matter. LFTB labeled

The “pink slime” debacle of 2012 was hard to miss for anyone in the beef industry. The product, properly called Lean Fine Textured Beef (LFTB), had been part of ground beef for decades, yet a series of sensationalistic reports by ABC News rocketed it to the forefront of consumer attention.

At first the scare was that the Food and Drug Administration- (FDA-) approved product was unsafe, then the complaint shifted to public awareness. Consumers and consumer groups asserted it was their right to know what was in their ground beef. While industry groups have argued that there is little reason in labeling the fact there is beef in ground beef—LFTB is 100 percent beef—Cargill has begun labeling the product on its packages of ground beef.

Packages of ground beef, both chubs and bulk packages sold to consumers, will include “fine textured beef” on the label. Reportedly Cargill has been doing this since the end of January, but only announced it at the end of February. It pledged to label LFTB back in November 2013.

New nutrition

The FDA is proposing to give the familiar Nutrition Facts label a facelift to better fit current health concerns and to better reflect consumers’ eating habits. The Nutrition Facts label was first introduced 20 years ago and has not been notably changed since, with the exception of some labeling additions over the years.

The proposed change would see calories per serving highlighted in much larger font, the definition and description of serving sizes changed, and a different layout for nutrient breakdowns. See the side-byside comparison.

Changes of note include the addition of added sugars, the removal of calories from fat, and there are ongoing discussions on the appropriate average daily value for sodium. These changes have come as a result of research and growing information on nutritional needs.

One of the largest changes is to the definition of a serving and how servings are described. The new labeling would take into account documented common behavior in U.S. consumers. One example would be for different sizes of soda bottles. In the past, a serving was listed (for example) as 8 ounces regardless of the size of the bottle, and the Nutrition Facts would list servings per container according to its size. However, in the cases of smaller soda bottles that are most often consumed in one sitting, the new label would list the bottle as a serving and the Nutrition Facts would describe the contents of that serving.

GMO labeling (again)

It is an election year and that means another reprise of the wave of state ballot measures to require the labeling of food produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). So far this year, Colorado, Oregon and Vermont have had measures submitted that may appear on the November ballots. Groups in Massachusetts and California are also pushing for such ballot measures, even though a pervious effort in California—2012’s Proposition 37—failed on a narrow margin.

So far all-out GMO labeling efforts—either on the ballot or in the legislature— have failed. However, a pair of New England states has passed GMO-labeling laws contingent on neighboring states following suit. Maine and Connecticut passed legislation in the past year, which will require the labeling of GMO products when a certain marker is met. For Maine, its labeling tipping point is when five other neighboring states pass GMO labeling laws. For Connecticut, the required level is undefined in terms of number of states, but sets the bar at 20 million residents’ worth of representation.

Proponents of GMO labeling laws argue that consumers have a right to know if they are consuming products containing GMO ingredients. De facto GMO labeling already exists in the form of products certified as USDA Organic, which bans the use of GMOs.

Opponents of GMO labeling laws assert that labeling GMO ingredients is costly and supports the widespread misconception that GMOs are dangerous or less healthy than non-GMO products.

Beef names

Despite the industry annoyance at U.S. pork getting to rebrand itself with the more familiar names for beef cuts, Canada now gets to share in the U.S. beef naming system. At the end of February, both the U.S. and Canadian governments announced an agreement to streamline the names for beef between the two countries. Except where no suitable translation exists—i.e., instances where Canadian cuts are not represented in the U.S.—Canada is adopting U.S. names.

Some of the more notable changes are for the U.S.’ greater degree of names for cuts from the strip loin area, Canada’s “minute steak” will become “cubed steak,” and what Canada has called the “hip” will now get the U.S.’ round primal and roundderived names.

Official Canadian information on the name change pilot noted that “non-descriptive fanciful and coined names, which lead to mistaken identity” of a cut are in violation of some Canadian labeling regulations.

Though not directly addressed, it can be assumed from a list of the new names Canada will use that these prohibited “coined names” will include things like: “New York strip steak;” “Flat Iron steak;” and similar popular U.S. steaks.

“Adopting a common trade language is beneficial to industry on both sides of the border, and will enhance trade and opportunities for American producers,” said USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo in USDA’s official statement on the move.

“Meat production in the U.S. and Canada is highly integrated, and this will benefit industry by reducing costs of maintaining separate inventories, and facilitate the efficient trade with our Canadian partners.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor