As a mom, I have always rebelled against labels. My husband and I made a commitment early in our parenting career that we would empower our children to explore the world and to seek out God’s purpose for their lives…whatever that may be. We refused to let society’s preconceived ideas about what was feminine and masculine influence the way we raised our children. As a result, when asked to describe my kids, words like “unique” and “individual” are more likely to be used rather than the typical gender stereotypes.
As adults, my husband and I realize that every person has a unique story that no single label can define. We seek out people who are different from us, and we enjoy learning from those willing to share their experiences. Because of this mindset, my children have attended a plethora of churches and been in extreme social settings…ranging from ministering to a homeless man to dining with legislators.
We have taught our children that true identity only comes in knowing the Creator. For my family, that means the only labels we embrace are “child of the King” and “sons and daughters of God”. Categorizing words like “smart”, “athletic”, “popular”, and even “beautiful” have no meaning in our house unless they used in the context of the God who created them.
Given my aversion to labels, it is ironic that my family works in an industry that has become consumed by labeling. “GMO”, “organic”, “grassfed”, “pasture-raised”, “handcrafted”…the list goes on and on. There is an entire division of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) dedicated to overseeing and enforcing food product labels. As consumers demand transparency from their food and as companies seek out new ways to meet this demand, the number of regulated labeling terms has sky-rocketed…resulting in overwhelmed FSIS staff and confusion among the industry.
As a processing agent, it is my responsibility to ensure that every product that leaves my facility has a properly approved label. Both my plant and my front line USDA inspectors oversee this process weekly to ensure that all products meet FSIS regulation. In the unlikely event that a product does enter the food chain with an improper label, regulatory agents are also on the ground and monitoring store shelves…helping to ensure the integrity of this labeling process. However, despite our best attempts, human error can (and does) exist.
Two weeks ago a concerned (I prefer to believe this rather than the nosey and jealous alternative) consumer contacted my district inspector to report a mislabeled product from my facility. Immediately, my inspectors asked to review my records and thoroughly re-examined every label issued from my meat processing plant. Fearing the possibility that I had misinterpreted the regulation and desperately wanting to remove all doubt of incompliance, I resubmitted the label in question for online FSIS approval. However, instead of receiving a definitive answer, the confusion of this labeling process and the fallacies of these production terms were further manifested. I have spent the last week exchanging emails with various FSIS personnel (also known as labeling authorities) only to be given incorrect and outdated information…and eventually an apology by the Deputy Director of this division. Yesterday I received confirmation that my original label was indeed in compliance and all USDA guidelines had been followed when categorizing this product.
While it is comforting to know that I was correct, I also realize this joy will be short lived. As consumers continue to ask questions and as the government attempts to validate production claims, there is no doubt our label approval system will have to be amended. Some producers are seeking additional validation through outside agencies, such as the American Grassfed Association and Global Animal Partnership. However, organizations such as these charge producers a fee for their services, diminishing the farm’s financial sustainability. I do not believe they are the answer.
Just like no one can truly know my children without knowing the God who created them, true food transparency only comes when we understand those contributing to its creation. While all food originates on farms and ranches, we also have to include processors, distributors, and end-users (chefs, restaurants, and retailers) in this conversation. For example, a consumer valuing organic produce may not understand the conditions and distance that food traveled in order to achieve the low Aldi’s price for an organic apple in contrast to the farmer’s market higher price down the street. While both items are safe and acceptable, the stories of their creation are vastly different than their “organic” labels would have you believe.
As a society, we are fighting back against those who try to define us with external terms. We don’t allow a label to define a person, so why are we so eager to accept a label attached to food? Consumers express distrust for convenient and fast food, so why are they so eager to accept convenient and fast labels? Instead, I challenge you to get to know your food. Ask questions about every step of the process…how it was raised, where it was processed, and how far it traveled. When you do, I think you will join in my rebellion that, just like people, there is more to your food than a label can define.