The marketing mavens at the supermarket chain Giant apparently believed that less is more when it comes to providing quality grades on its fresh beef products. Too bad USDA disagreed.

Giant, a supermarket chain that is a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Ahold, is a familiar brand to shoppers across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Commentary:  What’s in a label?The company just added another chapter to its lengthy tenure on the East Coast, one that is unique.

What the supermarket chose to do with its fresh beef labeling, however, is not only troubling, it’s downright puzzling. That’s because supermarkets are usually considered to be paragons of retail merchandising, among the savviest of businesses at providing their customers exactly what they want.

Giant’s tactics regarding beef labeling, however, appear to be the opposite of shrewd marketing.

According to The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicagoland newspaper, Giant stores nationwide recently changed their labeling on fresh beef. “Rather than providing different options,” the newspaper reported, “the company labeled the meat simply as ‘USDA Graded.’ ”

Huh? To ask the obvious question: What’s the point of doing that?

Supermarket officials stated that the new labels were part of a rollout of the chain’s new “Butcher Shop” brand. However, a USDA labeling official declared that the move was problematic.

“We’ve never seen anyone use anything like the ‘USDA Graded’ label before,” Larry Meadows, USDA associate deputy administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program, told the newspaper. “The label is truthful, but it's also misleading.”

Let me suggest one reason why Giant (and other Ahold subsidiaries Martin’s, Stop ’N Shop and Peapod) might decide to switch to “generic” labels – because they’ve decided to deal with rising beef prices by selling less Choice and more Select.

Of course, USDA ordered Ahold USA to stop the practice, prompting company spokesperson Tracy Pawelski to acknowledge that Giant grocery stores would be changing their fresh beef labeling. Pawelski said the new label was “a brand rollout” — sure it was — and that the company only learned later from regulators that such generic labeling is disallowed.

“We apologize to customers for any confusion caused by this labeling error,” Pawelski said in a statement, although according to news reports, the generic labels were still in use. Proper labeling is expected to be available later this week, the company stated.

Adding to the controversy

On one hand, this isn’t some horrible breach of trust, as was the case with Food Lion’s (alleged) doctoring expired meat and poultry products with spices and even bleach and then repackaging and relabeling them, as occurred in the 1990s.

But what Giant did certainly doesn’t help with consumer trust in food product labeling. With controversy already rampant over mandatory GMO labeling, the use (and misuse) of the term “natural” and such travesties as “gluten-free” hot dogs and “cholesterol-free” produce, it’s no wonder so many people assume that food processors are out to screw them.

Labeling is supposed to be informative. It’s supposed to give consumers useful information that helps them make better choices in the marketplace. Recently, both PepsiCo and Kellogg’s have been sued by consumer groups due to allegedly unfounded health claims for their food products. In recent years, various manufacturers of yogurt, fruit juice and health foods have all been the subject of regulatory action regarding potentially misleading labeling claims.

Food packaging, for those who pay attention, has become more of a marketing tool than a source of information. Even the TV advertising supporting various brands aims to convince people that breakfast cereals can help you lose weight, that yogurt can remedy digestive disturbances and that soft drinks will reinvigorate your social life.

That’s fine. Caveat emptor.

But quality and safety issues ought to be of the table as far as food labeling is concerned. Ingredient statements, nutritional panels and health claims need to be precise, accurate and truthful.

If companies want to go the late-night infomercial route for their kitchen wizard products and miracle cleaners and instant car repair products, fine. All that happens is a few (hundred) thousand suckers get fleeced out of $19.95, plus shipping costs — or twice those charges if you decided to double your order for only the cost of shipping and handling.

But with food products, people not only get suckered monetarily by misleading claims, they can end up suffering problems resulting from fad diets, restrictive meal planning and even serious health issues when they buy into the phony nutritional claims too may food products make on the package or in ads.

We don’t know what the real motivation was for Giant to generically label its fresh beef. Maybe it was a misguided effort at a marketing maneuver; maybe it was an ill-advised attempt to manipulate shoppers by giving lower grade product a higher end brand.

But in the end, as the never-ending GMO controversy demonstrates, when people feel that they’re not being given the full story about the food they buy — no matter how trivial the issue might be — bad things happen to the manufacturers and marketers involved.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.