Consumer demand is driving a new crop of food labels.
Written by Paul Towers
Illustration by Heather Klinger
W ith a growing number of people asking not only “What’s in our food?” but also “How was it grown?”it’s no surprise that a new crop of food labels is pushing consumers to ask for even more information from food producers. Surveys and polls show that people are examining food labels for nutrition facts and ingredient lists, as well as information about what goes into growing that food. The result is the proliferation of food eco-labels that address sustainable agriculture, fair pay and working conditions for farmworkers, and animal welfare. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, estimates there are dozens of these eco-labels, with a wide range of impacts, some more or less than their creators claim. Of these labels, U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic is not only one of the most recognizable, but it’s the only label with significant government involvement,focusing on crops that are raised without the use of synthetic pesticides or grown without genetically engineered seeds. Kate Mendenhall, a farmer and director of the newly minted Organic Farmers Association, said as much to Congress last year. “In the late 1980s, we had many state and private organic labeling programs with their own set of certified organic standards across the country,” she said in a statement. “The conflicting labels and standards caused consumer confusion. As a result, many organic farmers and processors recognized the need for establishing one national organic standard to ensure consistency, build consumer trust, and allow the sector to flourish.”The Organic Trade Association notes that more than 5 percent of the food sold in the United States is organic, and the USDA says that more than 21,700 certified organic farming operations now exist throughout the country, and both figures appear on the rise. A lot has changed since the 1980s. Some of the emerging food labels include: Real Organic Project Not everyone is content with the current state of the certified organic label, fearful that the original grassroots philosophy behind it has been lost as larger farms and corporations have expanded in the market. In particular, recent fights (and losses) over whether certified organic crops could be grown in greenhouses without soil, and about threats to pasturing requirements, have fanned the flames of existing discontent. The new standards are being piloted this year and will be released by year’s end, according to Dave Chapman, a Vermont organic farmer and member of the Real Organic Standards Board. Chapman describes it as “an add-on label to represent the organic farming that we have always cared about.” Chapman adds that this will differentiate smaller organic farms from industrial animal farming and hydroponic operations, as well as what he calls “import cheaters that are currently USDA certified.”Equitable Food Initiative The Equitable Food Initiative formally began in 2015 as a group of farmworker labor unions and their allies who wanted to see greater changes out in the fields. They advanced the idea that improving worker conditions, pay, and training could reduce food safety concerns and ensure healthy food reaches store shelves. As a result, stores such as Costco and Whole Foods Market now carry produce from farms that have been certified with these standards. “EFI works with each farm to create, train, and support a leadership team made up of both workers and management. The leadership team has been shown to positively change the culture on farms and make them healthier and safer places to work,” says Sacramento-based EFI communications director LeAnne Ruzzamenti. “Research from the Berkeley Food Institute and others have found that EFI eliminates sexual harassment on farms by creating a more respectful organizational culture and by giving women a formal voice through the leadership teams.”Regenerative Organic Certified Yet another emerging label is focused on more than add-ons to certified organic labels. Regenerative Organic Certified, spearheaded by Dr. Bronner’s, the bath-and-body products company, and Patagonia is meant to combine commitments to soil health, land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness.David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, offered this perspective at the official launch of the new label in March: “Industrial agriculture and the factory farming of animals are top contributors to climate change, but these are also two practices that we can comprehensively improve through specific ecological and ethical approaches to farming.”As a result, Animal Welfare Approved, Food Justice Certified, and EFI are just some of the standards that help address ROC’s environmental and social justice required practices. Progress toward these benchmarks is then evaluated on a scale of bronze, silver, and gold. All labels described are intended to help consumers better connect to food that aligns with their values. Local Organic Farmers Association leader and Full Belly Farm co-owner Judith Redmond makes the case in OFA’s new magazine for maintaining and investing in certified organic. “Certification is more than just a technicality; the label means something to people,”Redmond says. And only time will tell if these emerging labels can do the same. Paul Towers is a frequent contributor to GroundTruth, a leader of the Sacramento Food Policy Council, and the organizing director and policy advocate at Pesticide Action Network. He enjoys cooking food from his garden with his children. For details about new eco-labels as well as an evaluation of their benefits, visit Consumers Union’s website at Greenerchoices.org.