Renowned food journalist and expert gardener, Michael Pollen, summarizes a very important point in this quote from his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The industrial food system in the United States is built upon the understanding that consumers do not have a direct relationship with producers. It developed that way to maximize efficiency and productivity for producers and to decrease prices and shopping time for consumers. In cultivating this disconnect, our food system has radically capitalized upon consumers’ lack of information, allowing two-word phrases and colorful packaging to substitute for meaningful conversations between producers and consumers.
If someone were to ask you if you regularly consumed “real food,” you would certainly want to have some clarification of the intention behind their use of the adjective “real.” In 2006, The Real Food Challenge was seeded by students in California and the Food Project. The Real Food Challenge states that:
Real Food is food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. It is a food system–from seed to plate–that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability. Some people call it “local,” “green,” “slow,” or “fair.” We use “Real Food” as a holistic term to bring together many of these diverse ideas people have about a values-based food economy.
The Real Food Challenge seeks to empower students on college campuses, and the organization offers resources that are useful to all consumers and producers seeking to transition to a more genuine and nourishing food system. Their Real Food Guide is an essential resource in identifying whether product labels and certifications have legitimacy.
Resources such as this are essential for consumers, since products defined by labels or certifications appear to be superior to the non-labeled, non-certified alternative. But oftentimes labels, much like many attempts to define complex items in one phrase, do not fully capture the picture or history of a product. Instead they only produce a desirable snapshot of its story. In this post, some of the major agricultural product labels will be defined and their social and environmental impacts explored.
How to use this guide:
- Use the chart below to gain a basic understanding of whether or not food labels are backed by legal definitions or third-party certification bodies. If a label is not legally defined or backed by a certification entity, you can dismiss its value immediately – there is zero basis for the statement made by this label.
- Also on the chart below, using the rightmost columns you can understand whether or not a particular label has weight in terms of environmental impacts or benefits to workers and animals.
- Below the chart are lengthier definitions and explorations of the bounds of each label. Use these to assist you in reading the chart.
- Please remember that this guide is a starting point. It is best used as a step in your journey to mindful consumerism, and is in no way complete or finished. There are more labels in stores than appear in this guide and more complexities within our food systems than can be detailed by one post. The information contained in this post is derived from my own experiences as a consumer and independent research, using primarily the USDA website, Real Food Challenge Guide, and the Animal Welfare Approved Guide as the main references.
- Also, know that the best way to ensure you participate in mindful consumerism is to talk to your producers directly. Farmers’ markets are a wonderful way to interact with your producers and chat with them about their practices.
- Furthermore, please contact me with feedback and constructive criticism. I aspire to be a mindful consumer and this requires constant education and discussion!
Real or Not?
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Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): This label ensures animal welfare is prioritized but speaks less for environmental health and worker welfare. Although the latter two issues are not emphasized, this does not mean AWA’s label signifies a negative impact in regards to them.
“The basic premise of all our standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being,” and that the environment, food quality, and methods of raising the livestock are absolutely linked to one another. These standards, reviewed annually, require animals to be raised on pasture and prohibit dual production. The AWA website is easy to peruse and very helpful in understanding the bounds of the standards. It seems transparent and straightforward, consumer and producer friendly.
Bird Friendly: This label promotes increased biodiversity and environmental health. In regards to animal welfare, this label has no direct weight, since it is applied to the production of coffee. Some might argue however, that it protects and increases bird habitat, which can be seen as a benefit to these animals. The label says nothing about workers’ compensation, but insists that local farmers are benefitted through increased income from premium coffee prices.
Some terms commonly used in the modern food system, including “local” and “shade grown” do not have certification processes associated with their use. Therefore these terms can be used for extremely different forms of production and might not accurately reflect their true history to consumers.
The image below presents the various levels of “shade” that coffee shrubs are exposed to in the industry. These levels can very from 10% (shade monoculture) to 100% (rustic), and all can be advertised as “shade grown.”
Working to combat misleading labels of “shade grown” products, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has established “Bird Friendly” criteria that require the farms to meet USDA Organic certifications and be at least considered “commercial polyculture” on the shade scale (see above), among other criteria.
Biodynamic: Biodynamic agriculture is driven by ecological health. It is perhaps one of the most stringent certifications offered in regards to environmental quality. The certification ensures animal welfare, as animals are integral components of the farm ecosystem, but does not specifically focus on worker welfare, although some might argue that the philosophies driving biodynamic producers yield greater worker health and well-being.
The concepts driving Biodynamic agriculture arose in the 1920’s with the philosophy of an Austrian writer named Rudolf Steiner.
Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself. Preparations made from fermented manure, minerals and herbs are used to help restore and harmonize the vital life forces of the farm and to enhance the nutrition, quality and flavor of the food being raised. Biodynamic practitioners also recognize and strive to work in cooperation with the subtle influences of the wider cosmos on soil, plant and animal health.
Quoted from: What Is Biodynamics?
This holistic form of agriculture is certified by an international organization called Demeter. In order to be certified, farms must meet the National Organic Program requirements (USDA Organic Standards) and be managed in accordance with the Demeter Farm Standard for at least one year. Among the many elements outlined in this Standard, to be certified by Demeter a farm must have at least 10% of its acreage set aside as a preserve for biodiversity. Additionally, “since Biodynamic farming principally views the farm as a self-contained organism, only an entire farm will be considered for certification. Individual fields or crops cannot be certified. More than one farm may be counted as a single certification unit under certain conditions” (Demeter Biodynamic Certification).
Biodynamic-certified direct agricultural products may be certified, but in order for their value-added products to be certified, they must also meet Demeter standards. For example, grapes produced on a biodynamic farm are certified biodynamic, but wine produced by these grapes must meet other standards established by Demeter in order to be biodynamic.
Cage Free: This label implies nothing with regards to environmental issues or worker well-being. In regards to animal treatment, “cage free” merely implies that animals are not kept within cages. They can still be confined to small areas, barred from outdoor access, and have their beaks cut. This term is not legally defined or verified by a third party.
Fair Trade: Products falling under the realm of “fair trade” require a blog post entirely their own, devoted to exploring the various “fair trade” standards that exist. Stay posted because this topic is something that I very much want to pursue. In the meantime, Fair Trade Winds, a store with 7 locations throughout the U.S., has an excellent resource on their website regarding different fair trade labels.
In the U.S. there are 5 widely recognized labels: Fair Trade International, Fair Trade U.S.A., Fair for Life, the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair Trade Federation. The first three are certifiers and the last two are membership groups. There are differences between each, and that’s what we aim to tackle here.
Free Range: This label has no implications for any of the categories emphasized in this guide.
This label implies that animals raised in a “free range” manner are given access to a natural, open environment. It inspires the images of cattle grazing in an open field, chickens pecking at the soil, and pigs rolling in a puddle of fresh mud. The reality differs from these timeless perspectives of free range farming. Under the USDA regulations, only poultry are considered under this label. The Lexicon of Sustainability states that Free Range labels:
…indicate solely that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. These regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time the animal must be allowed access to this space.
Indeed, the USDA website contains this vague, short description: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
While it may paint a pretty picture, Free Range claims are hollow and misleading. For this label, contact the producer and ask them about their version of Free Range.
Grass-Fed: Three different certification entities have been addressed for this label:
- USDA Grass Fed (beef): The USDA’s definition of grass fed yields no implications for environmental sustainability, worker welfare, or animal well-being. This label describes only of the diet of the animal from which the meat originated. In other words, grass fed animals might be given hormones or antibiotics, or crammed into confined operations with horrendous living conditions and destructive environmental implications.
- American Grassfed Association (AGA): The environmental implications of AGA’s certification are questionable. Animals must be on pasture or in forage for their entire lives, which ensures they will be outside. Although these practices would likely not be sustainable in a confined operation, they don’t directly ensure that farmers will practice sustainable rotational grazing methods. The AGA label says nothing for worker welfare but requires that animals are kept outside or in paddocks through the growing season and not given hormones or antibiotics. Therefore in terms of animal well-being, AGA’s standards are almost there… but not quite.
- Animal Welfare Approved (AWA): The environmental implications of AWA’s grass fed certification are similar to the explanation offered above for AGA’s definition: questionable based on the producer’s specific practices. As for worker welfare, AWA’s grass fed label doesn’t say much… but this label gets a passing grade for animal welfare! The Real Food Challenge approves of AWA Grass Fed products, classifying them as “real.”
Local: There is no legal definition or certification to standardize the use of this term. Furthermore, even if a product is deemed as local by a producer, it might not be raised or produced in a manner that is environmentally sound or respectful towards animals and workers.
That being said… purchasing local foods is an excellent practice to better connect with your producer and understand the implications of your purchasing decisions. How “local” you buy is up to you – but starting at your city’s farmers’ market is an excellent way to get to know what products are available in your area. Buying seasonal produce is a large component of being a local consumer and encourages creativity in the kitchen.
There are movements towards Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, in which customers subscribe to a weekly supply of goods produced by a local farmer. In some CSA programs, consumers even have the opportunity to work on the farm for a few hours each week. Check with your local farmers to see if they have a CSA program you can join. Additionally, food hubs are cropping up across the United States – these are grocery stores that support local producers by providing them with an outlet for their goods. These food hubs often have programs similar to CSAs – pulling from many local farms instead of just one, and providing customers with different options throughout the season.
The term “local” is a good example of a situation in which a certification may not exist, but, when done consciously, “buying local” can greatly benefit your community’s ecosystem, economy, workers and animals. All you have to do is connect!
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): The primary targets of the MSC are marine/freshwater organism populations and habitats. In terms of environmental impact, the MSC gets a gold star. And while the MSC provides standards for only wild-capture seafood, this implies that the organisms are not confined to highly concentrated areas – a definite bonus for animal welfare. In regards to social impact, the MSC does not hold much weight, although the organization does have several education initiatives for producers and consumers.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organization that sets standards for sustainable fishing practices and seafood traceability. Traceability refers to the ability of producers and consumers to understand the origins of their product/good and the path of that good during its life cycle. According to the Lexicon of Sustainability, this “provides consumers with valuable and verifiable information about the food they buy. It helps explain the integrity of the product, its origins, species, and its legal production under a competent management regime. Traceability means accountability, it’s a guide for responsible ocean stewardship and a safeguard protecting a vital natural resource” (Traceability | Lexicon of Sustainability).
The standards for MSC-certified fisheries are applicable to wild-caught marine and freshwater organisms. They operate on three principles:
In regards to environmental sustainability, the MSC standards require fisheries to use fishing gear that decreases bycatch (the capture of undesired sea animals in large fishing gear) and minimizes ecosystem disruption. Additionally, the standards limit the season and geographical in which fisheries can operate, helping to allow populations of fish to rebuild and protecting habitats.
Additionally, the MSC operates a Chain of Custody Standard that ensures traceability. Products that bear the MSC blue label must meet the standards of sustainability and traceability outlined by the MSC. There is a video available from the MSC to explain their standards. You can locate that video by clicking here.
To my understanding, the MSC does not certify producers; they only set the standards used by independent certification bodies to ensure that fisheries are operating under MSC guidelines.
Natural/Naturally Raised: This label pertains only to the processing of the product or the feed/additives given to animals and therefore implies nothing for the environment, animals or workers involved. There is no third party certification entity for this label.
In regards to meat and poultry under the USDA, a natural product is:
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
The Food and Drug Administration takes a similar stance on the use of the term “natural” on products (FDA | Natural).
No Antibiotics: This label implies nothing for ecological/environmental sustainability other than perhaps a more conscious and responsible use of antibiotics, but it is not strict enough to guarantee this. Furthermore, this label says nothing about the treatment of the animals or workers.
According to the USDA, the “no antibiotics” label may be used on meat or poultry products raised by producers that can show sufficient evidence that no antibiotics were administered. This label is not certified by a third party. Certain labels, such as the Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Association, and certain stores, such as Whole Foods, allow only responsible antibiotic use or no antibiotics ever. The AWA offers an intriguing perspective on the antibiotics question in its “Food Labels Exposed” guide:
“A ban on antibiotics might seem like a good thing: Overuse of antibiotics in farming can lead to resistance, where medically important antibiotics become ineffective when we get sick. However, even with the best management, animals can fall ill and need treatment. If farmers cannot sell an animal that’s been treated with antibiotics under a particular label, they may choose to withhold treatment instead. A “no antibiotics ever” approach will not stop antibiotic abuse in food animal production: It will create a two tier system where some animals may have treatment withheld, while others are routinely treated. The solution is the responsible use of antibiotics on all farms, where animals are kept in conditions that reduce the risk of illness, but are given treatment only when needed. Labels that work on this basis include Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane.”
No Hormones/No Hormones Administered: These labels imply nothing for ecological/environmental sustainability, animal welfare or worker welfare.
This is only relevant to beef, as hormones are not federally permitted to be used on pork or poultry. For beef, this label can be used if “sufficient documentation is provided” proving that no hormones have been used in raising the animals. This label is not backed by a third-party certification body.
Non-GMO Project: This particular label pertains mostly to the chemical composition and origins of the food. It says nothing about the treatment of animals or workers. Non-GMO products can be farmed using pesticides and can be fed to animals living in CAFOs. Therefore, this label states nothing about environmental health and sustainability.
The Real Food Project states that this label is a step in the right direction but not sufficient enough in scope to make a positive environmental impact (Real Food Guide).
Organic: Although this label prevents the use of pesticides and fertilizers, USDA certified organic farms can be monocultures, creating problems with disease propagation and loss of biodiversity. Organic does not require farms to increase soil health or conserve water usage. There are also no provisions for the treatment or compensation of workers or animals.
Products certified as USDA Organic are produced “using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics” (USDA Organic). These products can be food or fiber, and are monitored from farm to consumer. This implies that at every stage of the process these products must meet USDA Organic Standards. These standards are in place to ensure that “organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances” (USDA Organic Standards). The Organic Food Production Act outlines the principles of organic production, which are enforced by the aforementioned USDA Standards.
Organic labeling is tricky to decipher. In one sense, the labels are straightforward, meaning that the majority (95%) of the product listed as USDA Certified Organic is truly produced without the use of synthetic materials. The remaining 5% allows for additives and other “approved” inorganic substances to make their way into the final product. To another point, does buying something that is certified organic ensure that the product was produced fairly (to the workers) or in a manner that truly preserves and enhances the natural environment? Consider certified USDA Organic bananas, for example. These bananas are grown in developing countries that may or may not have fair wage labor laws. This means that workers may be underpaid, overworked, forced to work, or otherwise incapable of having autonomy in their jobs. Furthermore bananas, like many crops, are commonly grown in monocultures. This method of production increases efficiency for producers but decreases overall environmental sustainability and biodiversity, inhibiting natural pollinators and beneficial, soil-building practices. Monocultures can also increase the susceptibility of the crop to disease. So buying USDA Organic bananas doesn’t imply that the product is healthy for workers or the environment. This is not to dismiss all organic endeavors as superficial. Merely it is important to understand the implication of labels beyond their intended appeal – after all, labels are projections aimed at gaining consumer confidence and producer profit.
As for the products themselves, they vary between produce (vegetables and fruits) and value-added products such as Organic Breads produced by Rudi’s Bakery. An article titled What Organic Really Means, published by the Washington Post in 2009, dissects the different grades of organic that may appear on product labels:
- ” ‘100 Percent Organic’ products must show an ingredient list, the name and address of the handler (bottler, distributor, importer, manufacturer, packer, processor) of the finished product, and the name and seal of the organic certifier. These products should contain no chemicals, additives, synthetics, pesticides or genetically engineered substances.
- ‘USDA Organic’ products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The five percent non-organic ingredients could include additives or synthetics if they are on an approved list. The label must contain a list that identifies the organic, as well as the non-organic, ingredients in the product, and the name of the organic certifier.
- ‘Made With Organic’ products must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The label must contain a list that identifies the organic, as well as the non-organic, ingredients in the product, along with the name of the organic certifier.
- If a product contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients, it cannot use the word ‘organic’ on the packaging or display panel, and the only place an organic claim can be made is on the ingredient label.”
Protected Harvest: Protected Harvest aims to certify farmers based upon region and crop-specific practices that have a positive environmental impact – an environmental gold star! But this certification does not directly focus on animal or worker well being.
Protected Harvest focuses on region and crop specific practices rather than generally eliminating all chemical pesticide use. The standards are based on three things: production, toxicity score and chain of custody. The production aspect focuses on 9 ecological management categories: field scouting, information sources, pest, field, weed, insect, disease, soil and water quality, and storage (PH Standards). These production standards are established for only certain crops, including stone fruit, citrus fruits, mushrooms and wine grapes. Protected Harvest does encourage standards to be developed for new products, but states that “in order to have the maximum impact, we can only consider requests from trade or marketing associations, farmer cooperatives or other organizations, and food companies. Individual farmers wishing to apply should not hesitate to contact us – we may be able to steer you towards an appropriate association” (New Standards).
The toxicity score standard allows producers to incorporate pesticides, but eliminates the most toxic pesticides and restricts pesticide use to a minimum.
Finally, the chain of custody component provides for monitoring of the crop from farm to retail.
Although Protected Harvest is limited in scope (standards are developed for only a handful of crops), it provides a precise alternative model to Organic standards, while encouraging environmentally-conscious production practices.
Rainforest Alliance: From an ecological perspective, the Real Food Challenge approves of this label, which works in the sectors of agriculture, forestry and tourism to ensure ecologically sound practices are upheld. Otherwise, the RFC gave this label a “red light” in terms of fairness, despite the education and health initiatives the Rainforest Alliance provides to workers and indigenous populations. Sustainable development initiatives are important, and a huge step in the right direction, but they don’t fully entail “fairness.” Furthermore, the Rainforest Alliance does not work for animal fairness, and therefore cannot be considered as contributing to that issue.
It is important to note that the Rainforest Alliance has three different marks that companies can place on products depending upon various criteria:
Conclusion: The best way to be a mindful consumer is to educate yourself by reading, asking questions, and consulting your leaders in local food. Buying locally and seasonally produced items will ensure that you have access to updated resources. Talking with your local producers is the best way to truly understand your products and be proactive in your food decisions.
Aside from buying local, it is important to reflect upon the practice of labeling, and what that symbolizes for the greater basis of consumerism in the United States. Navigating the labels can be a confusing learning process, requiring time and effort. As Fair Trade Winds states “This confusion is also a little exciting, though. The fact that more than one fair trade label exists is the result of the fair trade movement’s growth over the past decades.” Consumers in the United States, when driven by the knowledge of the impact their purchases have, can be powerful agents of change in this global economy. Whether their purchases increase wages for agricultural workers, increase soil fertility or biodiversity in a region, preserve the rain forest, or simply lead them to ask questions about these products, something good is in the works. In order to spark this knowledge, labeling and certifying entities need to publish consumer guides detailing the impact the label has, relevant to the consumer’s interest. As a consumer, I would be empowered to find readily available information concerning the labels I see on the products I buy, published in layman’s terms by the certifying entity. Something akin to the Food Labels Exposed guide published by Animal Welfare Approved:
To help make sense of the bewildering range of food claims and terms, Animal Welfare Approved has produced Food Labels Exposed, a comprehensive guide that provides clear and factual definitions for the most commonly used claims and terms for the production, marketing and labeling of meat, dairy, eggs and other farmed products.
I’d love to see more of these guides across the board. If the government, producers,and certification parties can increase transparency and effective communication with consumers, purchasing their products can become a meaningful and empowering experience.
Did you enjoy reading this post? Do you have any thoughts or questions? Comment below and continue the discussion!