Animal product labels are notoriously confusing and often misleading – thankfully, EWG's new decoder clears it all up.
It's a real problem. Many of us want to eat things that have been grown and raised in ways that are ethical, healthy, and environmentally sound. And many food manufacturers want to sell things to people like us, but without having to do the work. Which means we are inundated with a parade of labels that are confusing at best and intentionally misleading at worst.
As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts it: "Some companies have committed to more responsible practices. Yet shoppers can find it difficult to tell which claims on labels represent truly responsible practices. In fact, so called “free range” chickens may have very little access to the outdoors and “natural” meat products may still be from animals fed antibiotics critical to human health."Unfortunately, most animals raised for meat, milk and eggs are done so on industrial farms that contaminate our air, soil and water. "These farms rely heavily on antibiotics and other synthetic treatments to boost outputs, and combat diseases caused by stressful, crowded and unsanitary conditions," notes EWG. "Weak bacteria are killed, leaving behind the most resilient and hard to kill — so-called 'superbugs.' These bacteria are capable of causing untreatable infections."
And in fact, new research by the group found that almost 80% of meat sold in US supermarkets contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Meanwhile, better methods have big results; things like giving animals room to pasture have documented positive effects on the planet.
What's a shopper of ethical, healthy, and environmentally sound food to do? Well obviously, the first suggestion is to switch to a plant-based diet. But in lieu of that, understanding the perplexing mishmash of labels is a great place to start.
To that end, EWG created a nifty tool to help consumers find their way around the label game.
To start, you see icons like the ones pictured above, and upon clicking the item you're interested in, the common labels and their claims are explained. So, for example, you might find under EGGS that "American Humane Certified" has some good things and some questionable ones:
• Specifies minimum amount of space per animal to allow for natural behaviors.
• Animals can be confined in cages or crates.
• No requirement for outdoor access.
• Permits use of antibiotics to prevent diseases associated with crowded or unsanitary conditions.
• No growth hormones.
• Painful physical alterations must be done “in a manner that minimizes pain and stress,” a vague standard that doesn’t provide additional details on how these alterations should be conducted, or if they are even necessary.
• Audited by an independent third party.
• Annual on-farm inspections.
• No audits to ensure humane slaughter.
You get the idea. And EWG explains each label for each kind of product with this kind of detail. If you are looking to really understand your food and the issues it comes with (because let's face it, unless you're living on plants grown locally, your food likely has some issues), I really recommend using this helpful tool. If you're making the effort to eat responsibly, you might as well really be eating responsibly.
Find the EWG LABEL DECODER here.