Food Labeling Basics:
What is a label?
Under the law, a label is more than just the paper or plastic attached to your food product that includes the product's name
The law defines a label as "the display of written, printed or graphic material that comes with a product"meaning it could also include anything that accompanies the product even if not physically attached.
Everything pictured to the left is part of this product's label. This includes the image and its description.
Labels can include words, phrases, and images, but also a flyer or informational sheet that explains the food product
Who oversees labeling?
The two main agencies are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The USDA regulates labeling for most meat, poultry, and egg products while the FDA regulates labeling for all other food products
Pre-approval required for labels?
Labeling is required for all foods and drinks, including meat, poultry and egg products.
The law defines the term "food" broadly to include anything used for food or drink by humans or animals.
This means substances like additives, some processing agents, and even food packaging materials can be regulated as food if those things become part of the final food product. Manufacturers generally are not required to get a label approved before placing it on a product for sale.
Depending on the category of food, there are different legal requirements for labeling
Raw Agricultural Commodities
Processed food can be: (1) any food that is not a raw fruit or vegetable; or (2) raw fruits and vegetables that have been subject to some sort of processing.
Processed food labels are the most common, but also some of the most difficult to understand.
Many of the requirements listed in this guide apply to these types of products unless otherwise specified.
Raw agricultural commodities, or RACs, are fresh fruits, raw vegetables, grains, nuts, eggs, raw milk, meats, and similar produce.
The labeling of these products is typically exempt from the majority of requirements listed in this guide.
Meat, Poultry, Dairy, Eggs
This category is the second most common type of food label that a consumer will have to navigate. many of the requirements for labeling of meat, poultry, and eggs are similar to those pertaining to processed foods; however, there are specific requirements that are unique to these products.
Seafood falls under the general definition of food for labeling purposes and is largely regulated by the FDA.
However, the USDA’s Country of Origin Labeling requirements also apply to seafood and are meant to inform consumers about where the seafood came from. These requirements have many exemptions that prevent this information from reaching the consumer.
Recently, there has been an increase in the amount of seafood that is mislabeled with less expensive fish being substituted for more expensive varieties.
The labels on USDA regulated products generally require preapproval to ensure the information is truthful, accurate, and not misleading.
The labels on FDA regulated products generally do not need to be preapproved by the agency before sale, although some specific types of claims may require the agency's approval.
As you explore labels on the next page, you can look to see what specific language is mandatory or required and regulated by the agencies versus voluntary or not required and often unregulated by the agencies. Generally, voluntary label statements are placed on food products to increase marketability, but some of those statements have more meaning than others. This website is intended to help you determine the difference