All you want is simple healthy food; you don’t know what goes into the stuff they serve at restaurants, and so, you feel that nothing can quite compare to the honest and simple fare you can rustle up right in your kitchen. So you head down to the portals of your trusted local supermarket, and you look for the cuts that you trust – hopefully, you’ll find chicken that’s free range, naturally raised beef and hygienically butchered healthy meat in general. You do see plenty of reassuring labels on all the packages all around the butcher’s brightly-lit glass case, but there is a little voice at the back of your mind that wonders if these labels really do mean what they seem to mean. Well, you would do well to trust that healthy skepticism your mind is capable of; for as we are about to see, most of the time, those labels usually mean nothing wholesome at all.
Let’s start with an old favorite – free range chicken. What exactly is it that you believe free range chicken is when you see those neat packages at the supermarket? Plump healthy birds roaming the plains, pecking at a delicious worm here and a little grain there? Well, yes and no. The Department of Agriculture is the authority that looks at each manufacturer’s practices, and decides on whether or not to award a free range cerificate. According to their standards, a free range chicken has to be allowed to be outdoors more than 50% of their lives. But the department is quite flexible on what “the outdoors” can actually end up meaning. It could mean the wonderful open bucolic setting you imagine, or it could mean a cage that’s 3 feet wide as opposed to the normal 15 inches of the battery farm. Just going down and getting a few ingredients for a home-cooked healthy food can turn out to be quite a study in hairsplitting.
Now the term free range is important not just for the amount of personal space you imagine each chicken gets; free range in your mind, is important also for the way it seems to suggest a certain dignity that goes into the process of bringing food to the table. You imagine that the bird is brought up “organically”, that it is brought up in the country in a way that is not “artificial”. These are some of the most misused terms in the food industry though, and so much could go wrong in any attempt you make to interpret what they might mean just by the sound of them. People are typically so concerned about bringing home healthy food that they will gladly pay twice for “organic” chicken. And the poultry industry sees no problem with exploiting this market with trickily-labeled meat. The first step there would be to get the USDA’s approval for the use of the term organic on their packaging. If your chicken package doesn’t bear the certification stamps – the USDAs Organic seal, and the seal of the Secretary of Agriculture, you can be pretty sure that your chicken never saw any greenery, any open sky or any organic feed.
Okay, how about the other certifications we tend to look for and make our purchase decisions by – “No growth stimulants or added hormones”, and “All natural- minimally processed/no artificial ingredients”? Surely there is no way that any farmer could find a way around these declarations is there? Now two out of three beef cattle in the US are pumped full of growth hormones to make them grow bigger, faster. The USDA does approve of the hormones used; it says that when you eat beef raised on hormones, those hormones are not passed on to you. If that is so, how come the European Union has banned it? Europe believes that the hormones used in meat farming gets into our food, and harms our reproductive systems – people who are affected by these hormones typically have lower sperm counts and really early menarche. If you don’t see the specific declaration that no growth hormones were used, you are in trouble. The “All-natural” claim for instance doesn’t include a no-hormone assurance. The problem is, the USDA has no real rules for any of this; so the manufacturer can use this to mean whatever he wants it to mean. When it comes right down to it, there really are no guarantees for how healthy you food source is when everything comes from a massive industrial effort. Profits almost always trump any interest the manufacturer might have in really doing a meaningful job.