Specialty meat producers who rely on unique claims to set their product apart in the marketplace — as well as consumer advocates who support them — are frustrated by today’s food labeling mania and are pushing for more accountability.

Specialty meat producers who rely on unique claims to set their product apart in the marketplace — as well as consumer advocates who support them — are frustrated by today’s food labeling mania and are pushing for more accountability.

“Two years ago we did a survey and found out that there are 36 different ‘no antibiotics’ claims out in the market,” said Urvashi Rangan, who directs the consumer safety and sustainability group at Consumer Reports. “We were finding funny ones like ‘no antibiotic growth promotants’ or ‘no residues,’ so we called USDA, and they claimed they didn’t approve them.”

Companies using the terms countered that they had gone through the proper protocols. When Rangan’s team confronted government officials again, they were told the agency had “inadvertently” approved the claims and would go back to the companies with a grace period for compliance.

“This type of craziness is what we want to stop,” Rangan concluded, while speaking on a panel in Denver.

Formed in 1936, Consumer Reports is a nonprofit organization providing expert, independent reviews of a wide range of products and advocating for consumer rights in the marketplace.

Governmental agencies have tried to address the issue of inaccurate or misleading claims by establishing standard definitions for terms like organic, grass-fed and cage-free, but their efforts have generated controversy. Watchdog groups and concerned individuals have questioned lax oversight of the federal organic label, which could in turn hamper efforts by the Organic Trade Association to launch a national organic check-off intended to raise as much as $30 million a year for promoting the organics industry. The federal government recently extended the comment period on the organic check-off proposal through July 20.

Critics believe when government officials set out to define an attribute, they end up settling on the lowest common denominator.

“They try to do one-size-fits-all and be very inclusive. But if you are wanting to have niche market, you’re better off creating the standard yourself,” said Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the Denver-based American Grassfed Association, who appeared on a panel with Rangan.

AGA developed its own independently verified standard for grass-fed ruminants and dairies, entitling qualified producers to use the association’s logo if they meet its rigorous guidelines. The stamp helps direct-marketers set themselves apart in a crowded market.

Brad Buchanan, owner of the Flying B Bar Ranch at Strasburg, uses the AGA logo and said shopping for meat should be like walking into a fine wine store and seeing many different types of chardonnay offered at a wide range of prices.

“We use our label to communicate what’s most important to us and to find those buyers who want those same things,” he said. “But we also want to have those claims verified so our buyers know that we’re getting audited and inspected every year.”

Rick Sakata, who attended the recent AGA annual meeting in Denver, owns the only AGA certified ranch in his home state of Hawaii. He often refers to his product as “100 percent grass-fed.”

“I think the 100 percent means something,” he said.

Crystal River Meats of Carbondale is another ranch that recently redesigned its label to include AGA’s endorsement.

Balkcom cringes when she hears rogue descriptions that haven’t been formally defined. For instance, wily marketers have exploited the term “grass-finished” by applying it to cattle removed from a feedyard and placed on pasture for the last two weeks prior to slaughter, she said.

Other terms are so watered down they are virtually meaningless.

Take the word “natural.” Studies show consumers associate it with everything from no artificial ingredients in the feed and no use of growth promotants or drugs to outdoor housing, Rangan said. In fact, technically it means none of those things.

“USDA is supposed to prevent misleading labeling,” she said. “We are lobbying them to deal with this. Either ban it or set a higher threshold.”

“Why are we verifying a meaningless label?” she added, calling it a waste of government resources.

Over the years, Consumer Reports has expanded its focus beyond whether claims are accurate to include whether they convey meaningful information.

One example is calling poultry “vegetarian fed.”

“Chickens are omnivores, so that’s not what a real chicken actually does. So we don’t find it very meaningful,” she said. “It’s up to us to explain the bigger picture to people. Consumers don’t know what they don’t know.”

Antibiotics are another complex issue, she said. Many large meat companies are now “splitting a hair,” as she described it, by removing only those antibiotics from their feeding programs that are considered crucial to human health. Antibiotics can be continuously fed at low levels or used specifically for treatment. “How do we begin to educate people and explain that?” she said.

During June’s White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship, Rangan said consumer advocacy groups like hers were accused of being radically opposed to any use of antibiotics, even in the case of sick animals. Not so, she said.

“We want antibiotics to be used when animals are sick. So getting the definition right on responsible antibiotic use is really important for us,” she said.

Most of the popular claims now appearing on food labels raise at least some red flags for Rangan, including those that refer to free range, humanely handled, cage-free and non-genetically modified.

The Ag Department recently granted its first non-GMO corn and soybean verification to Sun Opta, a processing facility in Minnesota. It bothers Rangan that the company was allowed to set a tolerance level for GM residues at .9 percent.

“Another company could come in with another threshold, and the consumer will be confused about that,” she said. “Having a claim verified is not the same thing as establishing a standard.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge involves how to handle environmental sustainability and its many derivations. Fuji Water, for example, promotes itself as “carbon neutral” even though it is shipped halfway around the globe, Rangan noted.

Sixteen years ago, she helped develop an online rating system at GreenerChoices.org that measures products for 25 different attributes. Rating across a spectrum is more accurate than using a single climate-friendly designation, she said.

“Sustainability is not a static thing, it’s an ideal,” she said. “The more we learn about it, the more we can put into how we define it. We’re continually learning more about what makes a sustainable system.”