Understanding Food Labels: How To Stock Your Home or Office With Sustainable Food


Making informed choices about the food you eat is one of the best ways to reduce the environmental impact of your family or business. But whether you’re stocking your home kitchen or the employee lounge of your green business, the number and variety of labels that purport to ensure the sustainability of your food can be confusing.

The following is a guide to some of the most common food labels and what they really say about the sustainability of your food:

General Food-Related Eco Labels

“Natural”

The “Natural” label means only that the food contains no artificial ingredients or coloring, and has been minimally processed. It is almost totally useless as a basis to determine the sustainability of your food.

USDA Organic

One of the the most common, and controversial, of “eco-friendly” food labels. The “organic” food label is regulated by the USDA and organic producers must meet stringent standards before certification. However, many small-scale producers argue that the reporting requirements place an unfair burden on small producers and that there are too many loopholes in the organic standards, allowing industrial agriculture to get away with such seemingly contradictory production methods as “organic” factory farms and “organic” monocultures. In response to these complaints, a number of consumer watchdog groups, such as the Organic Consumers Association, have arisen to campaign for stricter organic standards, and a growing number of small farmers are choosing to skip organic certification and call themselves “beyond organic” or other alternative labels.

Food Alliance Certified

A respected third party certification program, the Food Alliance Certified label ensures fair working conditions, humane treatment of livestock, and sustainable farming practices, but is the subject of some controversy because it does allow limited use of pesticides and antibiotics as part of Integrated Pest Management programs and other management plans.

Protected Harvest

Protected Harvest is an eco-label for farmers using eco-frendly Integrated Pest Management programs. Like the Food Alliance, it allows limited use of certain pesticides, but generally encourages a more holistic, sustainable approach to pest management, such as encouraging biodiversity to maintain healthy populations of beneficial insects.

Demeter Biodynamic

Maintained by Demeter International, the Biodynamic standard is one of the strictest in the world, requiring farmer’s to avoid pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, use compost and cover crops, set aside 10% of their property to preserve biodiversity, and more.

Fair Trade Certified

One of the most highly respected eco-labels, Fair Trade Certification focuses more on the social than the ecological responsibility of its certified products, but includes measures designed to prevent unsafe use of pesticides and other chemicals that can harm environmental as well as worker health.

Bird Friendly

Coffee lovers, take note! The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has developed the only shade grown organic coffee certification program designed to protect migratory birds.

Eco Labels Applied To Animal Products

In addition to environmental issues, many consumers are also concerned about humane treatment of farm animals when choosing meat, dairy, and eggs. Here is a guide to some of the most common eco labels applied animal products:

“Free Range”

Sadly, the term “free range” does not deserve its good reputation. For poultry products, the term is supposed to mean that the birds have access to the outdoors, but “access” is defined so loosely as to be essentially meaningless. In practice, “free range” chicken, turkey, and eggs are frequently raised in crowded warehouse conditions with as little as one small door to the outside for several thousand birds. The similar “cage free” label applies to eggs only and does not even ensure outdoor access, only that the birds were not raised in battery cages. There are currently no set standards for the “free range” label when applied to eggs, to dairy products, or to beef, pork, lamb, and other red meat.

“Grass-fed”

The label “grass-fed” is one of the sustainable food movement’s success stories. Though it was formerly applied to meat products that had been raised on grass, but fattened in feedlots, the term can now only be applied to meat and dairy raised exclusively on pasture and forage, with no grain feeding. (In addition to increasing the environmental impact of livestock raising, studies have found that feeding grain to ruminant animals such as cattle decreases the nutritional quality of their meat and milk.) The even stricter “American Grassfed” label is maintained by the American Grassfed Assocation. “Pasture-raised” is a similar term sometimes applied to pork and poultry, which cannot survive on grass alone. Though not regulated, the term is most commonly employed by humane farmers.

“Humanely Raised”

This term is not regulated, so if in doubt, ask.

“Naturally Raised”

Animal products labeled with this term were raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones, and fed a vegetarian diet, but it is otherwise meaningless. Also note that “vegetarian-fed,” a label sometimes applied to poultry and eggs, is a bit misleading, because chickens are naturally omnivorous. A truly free-range bird would eat insects, worms, and other small animals in addition to grass, grain, and other plant foods.

“Animal Care Certified,” “United Egg Producers Certified,” and “Swine Welfare Assurance Program”

All three are industry-friendly labels that allow many cruel and inhumane factory farming practices.

Certified Humane

This label is endorsed by the ASPCA and many other humane organizations.

American Humane Certified

This label was developed by the American Humane Association.

Animal Welfare Approved

Developed by the Animal Welfare Institute, this is currently the strictest humane certification and labeling program.

Predator Friendly

The Predator Friendly certification recognizes the important role predators such as wolves, cougars, hawks, and bears play in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and provides certification for farmers who use predator management techniques that rely on smart herd management, livestock guardian animals, and other peaceful methods of co-existence.

Marine Stewardship Council

Though the Marine Stewardship Council label has been marred by controversy in recent years, it is still considered the best eco-label for seafood. However, many environmentalists prefer the unofficial stamp of approval of the Monterey Bay Aquarum’s Seafood Watch.

“Dolphin-Safe”

Applied to tuna, this label ensures that dolphins are not dying in tuna nets, but other animals, such as sea turtles and sharks, may be.

Other Food-Related Eco Labels

For a more comprehensive list of food-related eco labels, Consumer Reports Greener Choices Eco Label Center is a helpful resource tracking eco label claims on many different product types.

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Image Credits: woodleywonderworks, Plutor, and Mike Licht

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  1. […] conventionally raised red meat has one of the largest ecological footprints of any food. Choosing organic, grass-fed, or “beyond organic” meat can substantially reduce the ecological footprint of your burgers, while also being more humane for […]

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