More Than a Label? Explore the Meanings and Motivations Behind Them

Until January 28, 2008, the USDA is accepting comments on its proposed definition of "naturally raised." The basis of their definition is that it would attest "that a cut of meat came from an animal free of antibiotics and growth hormones."

According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, a Consumer Reports survey last summer revealed that
"89 percent of consumers surveyed by Consumer Reports said 'natural' meat should come from animals whose diet was natural and free from drugs and chemicals. In the same survey, 83 percent said those animals should also be raised in a 'natural environment' -- not hemmed in small pens, for instance."
But under the USDA's definition of "naturally raised," animals would still be allowed to be intensively confined, to be mutilated, and other treatment that many consider cruel and inhumane.

Many people wanting to make more compassionate, sustainable choices often find themselves confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, and possibly inadvertently supporting practices they oppose, because many labels are either not regulated or don't mean what many think they do.

How many of your students (or you, your friends, co-workers, family, etc.) know the real meaning behind labels such as:

  • Cage-free
  • Cruelty-free
  • Dolphin safe
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Fair trade
  • Free range
  • GMO-free
  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Recyclable
  • Recycled
  • Sweatshop-free
  • Vegan

It might be an interesting lesson on seeking out accurate information and thinking critically to ask your students (or others) to define what these labels mean, and then have them research the definitions of the labels and the true meanings behind them. Tools like the Consumer Reports Greener Choices Eco-labels Center provide "report cards" on different labels, including what kind of official standards exist, what the claim means, whether or not its meaningful and consistent, etc.

Students could dig even deeper into these issues, exploring, for example, the reasoning behind having certain labels, who supports and opposes those labels and their reasons for doing so, and so on. The recent reversal of a ban on milk labeling in Pennsylvania could be one example to explore. In 2005 the egg industry was forced to remove "Animal Care Certified" labels from its cartons by the Federal Trade Commission. There have been controversies over the labeling (or not) of genetically modified food, labeling meat and products from cloned animals, changing the definition of organic, and more.

Students could even develop their own criteria, definitions and standards for food and other products.

Exploring these issues helps us hone our critical thinking skills, search for accurate information, and connect more deeply with the products and services we use and their impact on people, animals and the planet.

~ Marsha, Web Content/Community Manager
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