What Does “Fresh” Really Mean on Food Labels?

radishesHave you ever bought food labeled “Fresh” and wondered what that really means? According to Nielsen, in 2013, “Fresh” food represented about 30% of total supermarket store sales. Meat and produce accounted for the majority of “Fresh” food sales, followed by deli, baked goods, and seafood.
For fruits, vegetables, and packaged foods (not including meat and poultry), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the word “Fresh” on “unprocessed” food in a raw state that has not been frozen or undergone any form of heat processing or preservation. Foods labeled “Fresh” can still contain waxes or coatings (such as produce waxes on cucumbers and apples), chlorine washes (such as those used in bagged salads and on produce), ionizing radiation (used to control disease-causing organisms in some meat, poultry, vegetables, and spices), and pesticides applied after food has been harvested. “Fresh frozen” or “Frozen fresh” means the food was frozen quickly after harvest. “Quickly frozen” applies to freezing food below zero degrees Fahrenheit (F) for enough time to freeze the center of the food without deterioration.  Interestingly, “Fresh produce and seafood” is exempt from mandatory nutrition labeling so foods like produce that consumers typically seek out specifically because they’re considered “Fresh” might not even have a label.
Manufacturers can still use “Fresh” to label foods that don’t meet the above standards, if using the term doesn’t suggest that food is unprocessed. For example, “Fresh” can be used on the labels of pasteurized whole milk because, according to FDA, consumers generally understand that milk is almost always pasteurized.
Meat and poultry are a little different. When used on poultry, “Fresh” means the whole poultry and cuts have never been below 26°F.  For both meat and poultry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA; the agency responsible for regulating most meat and poultry products in the U.S.) does not allow “Fresh” when labeling meat and poultry products that are any of the following:

  1. Cured, such as corned beef or prosciutto.

  2. Canned, airtight, shelf-stable, dried, or chemically preserved.

  3. Any type of poultry including raw, injected, basted, marinated, and finished processed poultry, such as turkey sausage, chicken meatballs, and chicken nuggets that have been below 26°F.

  4. Uncured red meat treated with ascorbic acid, erythorbic acid, citric acid or other substances used to delay discoloration.

  5. Irradiated, or have been treated with an antimicrobial agent.

For seafood, there’s no standard dictating what “Fresh” means, so fish labeled with this term could actually have been previously frozen and then defrosted before being put on display for sale.
What “Fresh” doesn’t mean is that foods were harvested or packaged shortly before they arrived on supermarket shelves, or that the food hasn’t been packaged for a long period of time. So, something labeled “Fresh” could be packaged for weeks or even months before it is purchased.
Bottom line: Use of the term “Fresh” on food labels isn’t meant to imply the food hasn’t been on the shelf (or in the display) for very long. FDA and USDA have differing definitions of what “Fresh” means for produce, meat and poultry, and seafood isn’t wed to any real standard governing use of the term. While Target is developing a scanning device for produce that will give consumers information about where the fruit or vegetable was grown, when it was picked, and how long it could be before it goes bad, it’ll likely be a while before this tool is available to consumers. In the meantime, use your senses to tell if something smells the way it should when it’s ripe, and whether it looks and feels like it’s ready to eat. Buying seasonal produce can help too. For seafood, ask specific questions such as was it ever frozen, when was it caught, and how long has it been for sale. If you have access to a fish monger or market, try to buy seafood from them as they might be more knowledgeable about the answers to your questions. Lastly, FDA doesn’t have a definition of “unprocessed” food, so use your best judgement when you see the word “Fresh” on food typically considered processed.