Your Right to Know - Making Sense of Food Labeling

Food Labeling Basics

What is a label?2
Under the law, a label is the display of written, printed, or graphic material that is either physically attached to, or accompanying a product. The label includes not just the words or phrases on the package, but also the images. The courts have also considered what constitutes a label under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and determined that the definition is broad and includes information that is not physically attached to the product, but “supplements or explains” the product, for example, an informational flier accompanying vitamins.3

What type of food products have to be labeled?
Labeling is required for all foods, including meat, poultry, and egg products, although different agencies are responsible for regulating the labels of different products.4 Under the law, food is broadly defined, and includes any article used for food or drink for man or other animals, chewing gum, and articles used for the components of any such article.5

What Federal Agencies Oversee Food Labeling?
There are several agencies involved in the inspection and regulation of food, but the two main agencies are: (1) The Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”); and (2) The United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”).6 The USDA is responsible for meat, poultry, and egg products under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act.7 The FDA is responsible for all other food products under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

There are different labeling requirements for different categories of food.
(1) Processed Foods (any food that is not a raw agricultural commodity or a raw agricultural commodity that “has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling”8): This is the most common, and often times the most difficult, label to navigate. As a result, these products are the main focus of this guide. These products are largely regulated by the FDA. The main requirements listed in this guide are referring to these types of foods unless otherwise specified.

(2) Raw agricultural products (any food in its raw or natural state)9: The labeling of these products is typically exempt from the majority of requirements listed in this guide.

(3) Meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs: This is the second most common type of food label that a consumer will have to navigate. These products are largely regulated by the USDA. Many of the requirements for the labeling of meat, poultry, and eggs are similar to those pertaining to processed foods; however, there are specific requirements that are unique to these products.

(4) Seafood: With regard to seafood, there is not a specific labeling law governing these products. The USDA’s Country of Origin Labeling laws10 apply to seafood so consumers would have information about where their seafood came from and whether it was farm raised or wild caught. Unfortunately, the law and regulations contain many exemptions that prohibit much of this information from reaching the consumer.

Does a label have to be approved before it can be used?
Any labeling required under the FDA’s authority, which governs most food products, does not have to be pre-approved. On the other hand, labeling on most USDA regulated products requires pre-approval by the department. However, the USDA does allow manufacturers to use generically approved labels without pre-approval if certain conditions are met.11

Voluntary vs. Mandatory Labeling: Why does it matter?
This guide indicates, for each particular statement on a food label, what information manufacturers are required to disclose and what information may be voluntarily placed on a label. This distinction is important for the consumer to understand, because it speaks both to the level of government oversight and the intentions of the food producer. A required statement is heavily regulated by the reviewing agency. These statements have strict definitions and producers must meet certain detailed criteria, including font size, placement, and predominance on the package.12 The purpose of these requirements is to ensure uniformity among labels and to provide consumers with a certain base level of information about the nutritional content, safety, and quality of food.

On the other hand, voluntary statements often do not require the same level of detail and are governed, if at all, by agency guidance about what statements are permissible. Voluntary statements are comprised of various types of additional information about the food products that manufacturers can choose to disclose. Often, a manufacturer will only reveal voluntary information to the consumer that will encourage you to purchase the product. Many times, voluntary statements are not defined by the agency, allowing for a tremendous amount of leeway for manufacturers and producers.

Third Party Certifications:
There are now a lot of certifications that are provided to manufactures from third parties. These third party certifications are not defined or regulated by the federal government, but can assist producers and manufacturers in complying with federal laws and regulations.