Deciphering Eco Food Certifications

Lots of us are taking more care to think about the planet when making food purchasing decisions. That can include things like choosing seafood that isn’t being overfished, avoiding food products that are overly packaged, and buying more local foods that don’t have to travel as far to get to you plate (thereby saving on fuel and contributing less to pollution as well as benefiting local farmers, producers and purveyors). Paying attention to eco labeling is another way to learn about and judge the environmental impact of your food purchases.

Corn is one of the most common foods to be genetically modified and it is used frequently in processed foods.

Food Eco-Labels

The “eco-” prefix here refers to ecology and stewardship of the land, water and the creatures and plants that live on our planet. Eco-labels are voluntary certifications that seek to convey the wide variety of Earth-friendly practices undertaken by those who produce our food. People tend to be interested in these labels not just because they care about the health of our world, but because of the belief that Earth-friendly food production methods are also safer for the workers who produce our food. This all sounds great, and it is, but there are lots of these certification logos (not to mention eco-sounding “labelese”). What do all these symbols mean? (A great resource to help decipher all the food eco-labels is the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports and their website I’ll help you break down the “labelese” and logos in several categories (by no means is this an exhaustive list) to help you make more informed decisions…

Environmental Sustainability

Linking our environmental health to our food and nutrition is not a big leap; they are clearly tightly related and not just in the farming, ranching and fishing aspects, but in other less obvious ways. My Guiding Stars colleague and friend, Allison Stowell, has written on food and sustainability a few times on for this blog; check out her posts for much more information and resources on this topic. As Allison noted in her most recent post about sustainability even the U.S. Dietary Guidelines advisory committee included a section on diet and the environment (though unfortunately it did not make it into the final guidelines). Consumers care about the connection between what’s on their plates and the environmental price that was paid to get it there.

The USDA Organic Seal may be the eco-label you are most familiar with, as the National Organic Program begun in 2002 as a way to support organic farmers and help consumers identify truly organic products. Only food producers who are certified can make an organic claim on their food packaging. This includes using the phrases “made with organic X,” “100% organic,” and just plain “organic.” There is a lot of information available about the labeling standards and the categories of labeling. Overall, organic farming practices are believed to improve the soil quality (which may translate into more healthful and hardy plants), its ability to hold water and the safety of runoff and ground water on the farms.

USDA’s National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP) is separate from the USDA Organic Seal. Although there is no official USDA seal for the NCTP at this point, there is one that you might find at your local supermarket that’s produced by Quality Assurance International. Becoming certified by this program is not a permanent designation, but a pathway to organic certification for farmers who are moving to organic (it’s an expensive undertaking and can take several years to fully transition to an organic operation). The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service will certify products as “Transitional” using standards developed by the Organic Trade Association.

Non-GMO Project Verified labels for genetic modification. A genetically modified organism (such as a plant, animal or bacteria) is one that has their DNA changed using genes from other plants or animals, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine. In the U.S., corn and soybeans are the top food crops that have been genetically engineered or considered GMO crops, although other common crops like apples and potatoes may also be GMO. The Food and Drug Administration does not require any special labeling of genetically engineered foods, however some consumers wish to avoid these foods. The Non-GMO Project created their seal as an easy way to communicate with consumers about GMO foods and foods that contain GMO ingredients. Products carrying the seal have been third-party verified, meaning that an independent technical company is in charge of deciding whether a product meets the standards for the seal. The basic standards are that the food and its ingredients cannot come from genetically engineered seed or genetically engineered animals (including clones), but there are additional standards for the prevention of cross-contamination with GMO crops and also for additional testing of foods containing certain ingredients such as corn and soy. You should know that USDA organic certification already includes a no-GMO requirement, so if a product already has a USDA Organic seal you know that it does not contain GMO ingredients.

Animal-Friendly Certifications

Animal welfare labels are frequently tied to the environment simply because of the impact of animals on the land and water. There are a large number of animal-friendly certifications available (including wildlife and birds, not just farm animals), here are a few:

Animal Welfare Approved is a certification from the non-profit Trust for Conservation Innovations’ A Greener World project. In general, the standards required in order to receive the certification involve emphasis on the lifestyle of the animal (it should be able to “behave naturally”) and the impact of the farming system on the environment and local community. Pasturing and ranging are required, and no caging, crates or feedlots are allowed. Certified farms must have verifiable environmentally sustainable farming and ranching practices. There is an extensive list of animal care standards that must be followed, and every farm in the program is audited annually. AGW also oversees the “Certified Grassfed” designation that not only requires a 100% grass fed or foraged diet but also includes standards for a range of environmental practices.

Certified Humane Raised & Handled is a label for a program of an international nonprofit certification organization called Humane Farm Animal Care. Their standards allow for animals to be feed a nutritious diet without antibiotics, to be sheltered and have resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors. Complete standards are provided on the website. According to Greenerchoices, this certification does call for animal treatment that is better than the standard norm for most types of animals, but is lacking in certain areas such as space allowances and access to the outdoors for chickens and pigs.