The good news is there are more food labels — and that's the bad news, too
Jes Walton is food campaigns manager at Green America. She has interacted with many levels of the food system, from a small organic farm to studying federal agricultural policy, with many stops in between.
Organic and specialized foods now have a permanent spot in the modern American grocery cart. A stroll down any U.S. supermarket aisle proves it, but so do trends in the food industry, which are feeding the demand for organic and certified specialty foods at an increasing rate. Retail consumers are willing to spend a bit more for higher-quality food and food produced by socially and environmentally conscious practices.
As well they should. Organic food is healthier. Fair trade principles protect workers and prevent labor abuses. Good animal welfare is starting to become a cornerstone of meat industry best practices and meats from grass-fed, pastured animals are becoming more available.
But along with the boom of companies that are conscious of animal welfare, the environment and fair trade, there is a similar boom of “certification” labels that are little more than puffery and hype. Not all labels are meaningful, and few provide a direct definition.
So, what is the difference between “USDA Organic” and “Made with Organic Ingredients”?
“Natural,” “Naturally Raised” and “Non-GMO”?
What about “Cage-Free,” “Free Range,” “Pasture Raised,” “Grass-Fed,” “Humanely Raised” and, of course, “Farm Fresh”?
Consumers should be aware of how labeling affects their purchases and that even with the best intentions, the products they’re buying might not actually be meeting their values. Since not all labels are created equal and you cannot judge the strength of a label by its name, Green America provides a resource that breaks down the true meaning of the leading labels seen in grocery stores and farmers’ markets today, The ABCs of Food Labeling defines each food label and identifies those that are authentic, those that are mere marketing tricks and many that fall in between. The guide also offers a rating scale to show how each label measures up on responsible environmental, labor or animal welfare practices.
Beyond labels, there are many common misconceptions about food. For instance, many consumers would be surprised to learn that the label “USDA Organic” means, in addition to restrictions on using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, that the food cannot be produced using genetic engineering or use ingredients derived from genetically modified crops. Therefore, a food labeled “USDA Organic” is also inherently “Non-GMO.”
Misconceptions can work in favor of marketing ploys and cases where labels are downright meaningless. For example, it doesn’t make much sense that eggs labeled “free-range” can be laid by non-free-range chickens. And in the case of “cage-free” eggs, there is no third-party verification to back up the labeling. That’s why consumers often need to rely on more than the information provided on the food label.
Food isn’t the only industry becoming more socially conscious. Increasingly, companies are adopting what is known as the “triple bottom line” business framework, which holds that social and environmental factors, not only the financial ones (the traditional “bottom line”), contribute to a company’s value. The shifting industry landscape is welcomed and needed, but so is consumer awareness, as well as the need for real corporate transparency so consumers can separate the “green” from the “greenwashers.”
As the line continues to blur between conventional and organic/specialty foods, it’s crucial for Americans to understand food labeling in order to make informed consumer choices. Learn more about our food’s impact on the environment, animal welfare and human welfare at https://www.greenamerica.org/food-labels-guide-1.