Not only have whistleblowers been critical in exposing potentially deadly food safety issues stemming from poor hygiene at food retail, they have also been instrumental in exposing misrepresentations about deceptive branding and labeling. FIC is concerned with several areas of bad practices regarding holding, marketing, or labeling products.
Grocery Store Hygiene and Sanitation
GAP’s food safety program began in 1980 when we provided legal support for John Coplin, a top USDA meat grader for Chicago who exposed a major scandal in the meat-grading program leading to scores of firings and prosecutions.
In 1992, we gathered information from 19 Food Lion employees. They reported routine practices such as rewrapping and selling expired meat, dipping turkeys into bleach water to get rid of the slime, and putting tomato sauce on expired chicken and selling the new product at a higher price. This exposé caused Food Lion’s profits to sink from $147,000,000 in 1992 to just $3,000,000 in 1993, and the company’s stock to lose half its value. As a result of the plunge in profits, the chain had to close 80 stores and cancel plans to open 80 more.
The company’s stock has never fully recovered its price, nor has Food Lion returned to its national market share. For 10 years, we fought off a draconian Food Lion subpoena for our investigative materials, never giving in or revealing the identities of our multiple whistleblowers.
The term “greenwashing” refers to a corporation’s marketing attempts to make itself appear more environmentally friendly. With regard to food, greenwashing often takes the form of misleading labeling. For example, well-intentioned consumers may purchase foods labeled as “all natural” or containing “natural ingredients,” yet this may have nothing to do with the actual wholesomeness of the product. Other forms of greenwashing include corporate claims that profess a responsible approach to environmental stewardship. Often, however, these declarations of change are simply distractions from the company’s other environmental affronts. For example, a poultry plant may announce that it uses bio-fuels derived from poultry litter (feces and waste). While the bio-fuel solution may convey an environmentally-friendly sentiment, a closer look reveals that the poultry plant, an unsustainable CAFO, ravishes the local environment and creates far more environmental problems than the use of biofuels can resolve.
In an attempt to save money, many beef companies have infused their product with carbon monoxide (CO) in the packaging of its case-ready meat products—making it stay red for much longer (months) after its shelf life. GAP joined coalition partners in 2007 to bring this issue to light.
Golden Gourmet Mushrooms (GGM), a mushroom production company, asserted that its fresh mushrooms were organic and cultivated in California when it had, in actuality, been importing them from Asia. In 2007, GAP filed a complaint against GGM, leading to greater consumer awareness and the company’s consent to a federal order that it committed violations of food integrity acts.
Food Terminology – What Means What?
Organic: In recent years, there has been much debate about organic foods, and whether they are indeed better for consumers. But the term “organic” is a legal term. The USDA oversees certification of these products, which must meet proscribed legal guidelines. Among other things, to be considered “organic,” crops must not be genetically modified or irradiated, fertilized with human manure, or grown using synthetic chemicals (fertilizers or pesticides). Animals that produce organic products must be given access to pasture, fed vegetarian feed, and are not to be given antibiotics or hormones.
It is important to note that farms can be sustainable or practice humane handling without being organic. Conversely, organic farms are not necessarily environmentally efficient, nor do they necessarily treat animals humanely or workers and farm laborers fairly.
Sustainable: Sustainable is a term that describes methods of producing food that considers both the environmental and societal impacts of food production. For example, a sustainable farming model would require that animals have free access to pasture in order to reduce environmental waste associated with CAFO’s and to produce more wholesome animals.
Humanely Raised and Handled: Americans have become increasingly concerned about the conditions in which meat, eggs, and dairy animals are raised. Unlike organics, there is no government entity responsible for overseeing the certification of “Humanely Raised and Handled” products. Instead, non-profit organizations often act to accredit, certify and label humanely raised products. While there is no official definition, humanely raised generally requires that the food animal in question be raised without antibiotics, allowed to graze in open pasture, and was fed vegetarian feed with no animal by-products.
Local: By definition, local food is farmed near to its point of sale, but the exact distance varies by the seller. Generally speaking, “local” food would not travel outside of a specific region. The goal of local food movements is twofold. First, local agriculture supports local small businesses and farmers that otherwise would be consumed by big agriculture. Second, supporting local farmers can help reduce the environmental and socio-political impacts associated with the global food chain and transportation.
Because of its low impact on the environment, buying local food is often considered an aspect of “sustainable eating". However, it is important to note that local is not the same as sustainable – for example, local vegetables may be grown with harmful pesticides and fertilizers.