Which Food Labels Mean What They Say?
It’s hard to know with so many of them out there and more labels being introduced every month. According to Ecolabel Index, “the largest global directory of ecolabels,” there are now 432 eco-labels in 197 countries and 25 industry sectors — from personal care products to household cleaners to appliances to food.
As noted in a recent Associated Press (AP) article, “eco-labels have multiplied in recent years in response to rising consumer demand for more information about products and increased attention to animal and farmworker welfare, personal health, and the effects of conventional farming on the environment.” Many consumers are happy to pay more for foods with labels that signify values in line with their own.
Not everyone likes these labels, though. One farmer quoted in the AP article, Tom Willey of TD Willey Farms in Madera, California, argues that labels can’t substitute for “people being intimate with the farmers who grow their food.” Better to shop at farmers’ markets and get to know the growers from whom you buy your food, Willey says. For many people, however, that’s just not an option. And the next best thing, it seems, is to read the labels.
With so many labels being used, many consumers are now confused about what each one of them stands for. Some labels, in fact, are meaningless, with flimsy standards and no oversight to speak of, used at the sole discretion of the producer or manufacturer. Other labels, on the other hand, represent standards established by the federal government or by third-party certifiers. There are also labels that lie somewhere in between. So how do you know which food labels mean what they say?
Ecolabel Index publishes a comprehensive index of labels, with an explanation for each. You have to pay, however, for access to additional information about how compliance with the label’s standards is ensured, for example, or the name of the organization that manages the label.
The Greener Choices Eco-Labels database, published by Consumer Reports, allows you to search by label category (e.g., organic, social responsibility, environmental persistence) and product area (beef, fruit, processed food and nuts) or for a specific label that you’ve been wondering about. You can also browse all 73 food labels in the database here. Want to know more about the labels on household cleaners and personal care products? That’s in there, too.
For those of you who want to know what the labels on your food really mean, I wholly recommend this database. There’s a report card for every label that grades it on how meaningful it is (“highly,” “somewhat” or “not” meaningful) and whether it is verified, among other criteria. It also provides a fairly thorough explanation of what the label means. Products bearing the “Demeter Biodynamic” label, for example,
were produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and without animal by-products. Demeter prohibits the use of genetic engineering and has since 1992. In addition, crops may not be grown in areas subject to strong electromagnetic fields…
Biodynamic agriculture began in 1928 as a result of an Austrian based Anthroposophical movement, a “spiritual science,” and incorporates guiding principles that include cosmic rhythm (i.e., timing of the sun and moon phases), food grown from healthy, living soil, specific organic preparations for fertilizing and consumer connection with farmers. There are also specific provisions for animal health and welfare…
“Highly meaningful” food labels, as rated by Consumer Reports in the Greener Choices Eco-Labels database, include Animal Welfare Approved, Bird Friendly, Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Demeter Certified Biodynamic, Food Alliance, Rainforest Alliance Certified and USDA Organic.
Labels that are “somewhat meaningful” include Certified Vegan, Grassfed, Marine Stewardship Council, No Additives, No Antibiotics Administered, No Hormones Administered and Salmon Safe.
Labels rated as “not meaningful” — the ones consumers should be most wary of — include 100% Vegan, Antibiotic Free, Free Range, Hormone Free and Natural.
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