August 4, 2013

What do Mainers hunger for? More product details

It's a no-brainer, right? Just tell us what's in our food and where our clothes are made. But some manufacturers say: Not so fast.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

Today's poll: Product labeling

How much do you care about “consumer transparency” in product labeling?

A lot

Somewhat

Not very much

View Results

20130724_FoodLabels
click image to enlarge

Hannah Brilliant, left, answers questions about her produce from Limington resident Michelle Twomey at the farmers market in Monument Square last month. Brilliant, who runs an organic vegetable farm in Pittsfield, says she is fielding many more questions from consumers this year about genetically modified organisms.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

A label inside a cardigan sweater sold by a U.S. retailer informs consumers that the garment was made in Bangladesh.

Amelia Kunhardt/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

There are already plenty of rules about how certain foods can be labeled. The adjective "organic," for instance, can be used only on products that are certified by the USDA. The same is true of "fair trade," which refers to manufacturers that adhere to certain criteria aimed at creating equity.

The term "cage-free," on the other hand, has no legal or regulatory definition. Neither do the phrases "no additives" or "locally grown."

But there is ambiguity, too. The word "natural" is defined by the USDA as containing no artificial ingredients and minimal processing, but its definition is broad enough that it could include livestock that were raised in slaughterhouses and fed antibiotic growth hormones.

As for GMOs, companies can certainly label their products as "non-GMO." There is just no requirement that they do so.

Many manufacturers and producers are voluntarily releasing such information, in some cases as a marketing tactic. Even before the recent FDA decision on gluten-free labeling, many food companies were labeling those products to meet increasing consumer demand.

Heather McCready, regional spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said her company has pledged to label everything in its stores to indicate whether it is GMO by 2018, whether or not laws require it.

Other companies have taken a proactive approach in telling customers about their products.

Portland-based Oakhurst Dairy was the first milk producer to include a disclaimer on its labels that said it used no artificial growth hormones, even though there was no law requiring disclosure. There still isn't.

Bill Bennett, chairman of the board of directors for Oakhurst, said the company first persuaded its dairy farmers to sign a no artificial growth hormones pledge back in 1994. The labels followed shortly thereafter.

"We felt an obligation to tell customers not just what was in our products, but what was not," Bennett said. "In the end, the customer rules."

After Oakhurst began including its disclaimer, competitors followed suit.

Belliveau said companies that fight to keep certain information private are not the only problem. Some companies are seizing on the public's appetite for certain buzzwords like "local" or "natural" by making false or misleading claims. It's commonly referred to as green-washing.

"Consumers have to be savvy about the information that's presented to them," he said.

THE PUSH FOR TRANSPARENCY

In many cases, consumers' push for increased information is born out of a specific event.

Meat recalls, for instance, have prompted people to be more judicious about their choices and convinced lawmakers to call for transparency.

Recent revelations that some meat producers use an ingredient known as lean, finely textured beef, or pink slime, prompted the USDA to require labeling. It also has led to decreased production of that type of meat.

Salmonella outbreaks have alerted consumers to the fact that most commercial eggs sold in the U.S. come from only a handful of companies.

A 2011 investigation by The Boston Globe revealed widespread mislabeling of fish in markets and restaurants and led to legislation aimed at curbing the problem.

Media coverage of calories and fat content in certain restaurant dishes has prompted customers to ask for nutritional information. Some restaurant chains are voluntarily posting it on websites. Others are less forthcoming.

The push for transparency doesn't end there.

More and more, people check for certain chemicals in cleaning products, lotions and hand sanitizers. Parabens, a series of chemicals used in many cosmetic products, have been linked to breast cancer. Triclosan, a common antibacterial agent, also is being studied as a possible carcinogen.

The federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 requires the full disclosure to the public of all entities or organizations receiving federal funds.

(Continued on page 4)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

20130724_FoodLabels
click image to enlarge

Mark Heidmann, who owns Maple Springs Farm in Harrison, says: “I don’t think people have an understanding of what ‘genetically modified’ means, but they know they don’t like it.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

20130724_FoodLabels
click image to enlarge

Barbara Gulino of Whole Foods in Portland holds some of the hundreds of products with labels indicating they’re non-genetically modified, certified organic or locally produced.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

20130724_FoodLabels
click image to enlarge

Prominent labels indicate that these bunches of cilantro from Freedom Farm are certified organic, something many produce shoppers desire.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer



Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)


Today's poll: Product labeling

How much do you care about “consumer transparency” in product labeling?

A lot

Somewhat

Not very much

View Results