Okay, I admit it. I’ve partaken in more impulse shopping than I’d like to admit. But, hoping it’s never too late to teach a dog a new trick, I recently decided to become a more informed consumer.
Only how? I knew commercials weren’t going to be very helpful:
I figured I’d start by learning about labels; for they provide important information, no?
And, the more I thought about it, the more I was compelled to start by learning about food labels. After all, what I eat matters. What I feed my son matters. It can have short-term effects and long-term consequences.
Of course there are labels and then there are labels. Some labels are mere marketing devices. I write “mere” because I quickly found out that there are no standards for them. Sure, one can try to sue a company for fraud; but such laws don’t protect us from unclear claims.
Since these labels don’t tell me anything, they don’t help me be an informed consumer. They’re meaningless.
On the other hand, I learned there are key terms with legally recognized definitions. Take poultry, for example. The U.S.D.A. (United States Department of Agriculture) has created a list of nationally recognized terms which companies can’t use unless the product meets the U.S.D.A.’s standards (PDF 130k).
Now I was getting somewhere. All I needed to do was learn these standards, ignore the other labels, and I’d be a more informed consumer.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy. Take a distinction that seems as straight-forward as “fresh” and “frozen.” “Surely,” I thought, “frozen food was stored below 32 °F , and fresh food had never been frozen.” How wrong I was.
First, let’s look at “Fresh” poultry. Here’s the U.S.D.A. standard:
The temperature of individual packages of raw poultry products labeled “fresh” can vary as much as 1°F below 26 °F within inspected establishments or 2 °F below 26 °F in commerce.
Wait a moment! Poultry that’s been stored below 32 °F can be labeled “Fresh”? Why is that?
Well, according to the U.S.D.A., while water begins freezing at 32 °F, its effects aren’t significant until poultry is stored below 26 °F: “Below 26 °F, raw poultry products become firm to the touch because much of the free water is changing to ice.”
In other words, if it’s fresh enough to pass my grandma’s “touch test” it’s fresh enough for the U.S.D.A.; and they’re recognizing that poultry can still pass grandma’s test at 26 °F.
I don’t know about this. I don’t see what the “touch test” has to do with health and nutritional issues. I’d feel more informed if the U.S.D.A. reassured me that poultry’s health and nutritional value wasn’t altered when it’s stored below 32 °F and above 25 °F. As is, all is know is that “Fresh” poultry will be more “juicy” than poultry that’s not “Fresh.”
Now, let’s look at “Frozen” poultry. Here’s the U.S.D.A. standard:
Temperature of raw, frozen poultry is 0 °F or below.
When I saw this my first thought was that there’s something fishy about poultry. If “Fresh” poultry is stored at 26 °F or above, then won’t “Frozen” refer to poultry that’s stored below 26 °F (or, given the standard’s leeway, below 24 °F)? The U.S.D.A. even seems to admit this:
Most consumers consider a product to be fresh, as opposed to frozen, when it is pliable or when it is not hard to the touch.
So why would the U.S.D.A. associate “Frozen” with poultry that’s been stored below 1 °F? Because poultry that’s been stored above 0 °F is different:
Although they may not be frozen solid, they are in a semi-frozen or “hard-chilled” state.
In other words, “Frozen” means “frozen solid”; and poultry that is neither “Frozen” nor “Fresh” likely has been only partially frozen.
Okay, so these terms have been re-defined in ways that likely would mislead a consumer that hasn’t learned to speak “U.S.D.A..” But, does it really matter? It depends if there’s a qualitative difference between “Frozen,” partially frozen, and “Fresh” poultry. Thankfully, according to the experts at the U.S.D.A., there isn’t:
The quality is the same. It is personal preference that determines whether you purchase fresh or frozen poultry.
In other words, some folks like juicy poultry. Some folks don’t care. That’s all. But wait a moment! For the U.S.D.A. also says:
The faster meat and poultry freezes, the smaller the ice crystals will be. Smaller ice crystals will do less damage. Products that are flash-frozen by the manufacturer will have superior quality to fresh products frozen by the consumer.
So “Flash-frozen” poultry has “superior quality” to other frozen poultry. If this is true, but “Frozen” labels don’t tell me how it’s been frozen, then I don’t know if there’s a qualitative difference between “Frozen,” partially frozen, and “Fresh” poultry. For, I don’t know if or how much “Frozen” or partially frozen poultry has been “damaged.”
Come to think about it, I don’t even know what I’m getting when I buy “Fresh” poultry. Well, I know it may be only slightly damaged, for whatever that’s worth. I guess I feel a little more informed, if not reassured about my poultry.
To learn more you can go to the U.S.D.A. web site’s Food Labeling Fact Sheet (P.D.F. Version).
Special Note- This report was created, in part, as a class activity on newsworthy reporting and commentary. Special thanks to my Critical Thinking students for challenging me to think about why this commentary’s topic matters.