Navigating food labels in a saturated industry

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Earth Journalism Network, San Francisco, California

Have you shopped for sustainable food products lately? If so, you probably noticed the seemingly endless array of food labels proudly displayed on product packaging. From “Free Range” to “Grass-fed,” “Organic” to “Non-GMO,” producers are scrambling for new ways to convince you just how healthy and natural their food is.

But if you’re like the rest of us perplexed by the differences between say, “Certified Humane” and “Cruelty-Free,” don’t despair. Not only are consumers confused, but it appears the food companies themselves don’t know how to navigate through all the logos, standards, and certification organizations.

In fact, there are now over 200 eco-labels, each with its own certification requirements and consumer logo, according to Amarjit Sahota, the Managing Director of Organic Monitor, a U.K.-based organic food market research firm that organized the Sustainable Foods Summit, held recently in San Francisco. The explosion of food labels and their potential pitfalls was a major theme of the Summit, which brought together eco-label standard bodies, certification agencies, food producers, and others within the sustainable food business landscape.

A presenter speaks during the Sustainable Food Summit, held in San Francisco. (Credit: Organic Monitor)

The most common types of logo requirements are so-called “free-from” labels, which certify that certain inputs, such as gluten or eggs, for example, were not used during food production. But many certifications go far beyond that. Fair Trade, for example, has rules about how field workers are hired and paid, often requiring regular inspections in distant regions of the world. Certification requirements frequently stretch all the way up the food supply chain, to the food manufacturer’s suppliers, the suppliers’ suppliers, and so on. In many cases, the organizational resources needed to produce this level of transparency can be a significant burden, especially to small companies trying to produce sustainable food products.

And just how impactful are the logos in guiding consumers’ decision-making processes? In grocery stores, food labels are generally stuck on packaging without any explanation of meaning or requirements for certification. There are, for example, multiple variations on Organic and Non-GMO. Even though each may have differing emphases or levels of strictness, how many consumers are actually going to the organization’s web site to research the rules and how they are enforced? Very few indeed.

In the U.S., the "Organic" label is subject to the most extensive and long-standing federal regulations; most of the rest are created and administered by private organizations, mostly NGOs. These groups believe that existing food labels aren’t rigorous enough, so they create their own standards, associated logo, and certification program. The range of focus is extremely wide, from protecting dolphins and promoting gluten-free diets, to preventing the use of GMOs. The result? Hundreds of logos, often with overlapping meanings.

In the US, organic food label certification is regulated by the federal government. (Credit: USDA.gov)

Consider the Organic and Non-GMO labels. To qualify for the “Organic” label – the most popular eco-label – the food must not contain genetically modified ingredients, per the USDA’s regulations, and so “Organic” food by definition is also non-GMO. Yet the Non-GMO Project eco-label is popular and growing quickly, even on products already certified as Organic. Why? One factor is that the Non-GMO Project enforces a more rigorous testing regime on the food and its constituent inputs than would be required under USDA Organic regulations alone.

The controversial Vermont law mandating labeling of GMO status allows any food product with the Non-GMO Project certification and label to be considered compliant. Yet it’s the logo’s popularity, rather than the rigor behind it that is likely drawing food manufacturers to its certification program. As the logo spreads, consumers start to look for it as a specific indication of whether or not GMOs are present. Though it bears similar restrictions, the “USDA Organic” logo bears no mention of the term GMO, which is a prominent featurein the Non-GMO Project logo. Thus the marketing value of the logo is the deciding factor in many cases.

This Non-GMO food label has become popular with US consumers. (Credit: nongmoproject.org)

The growing number of eco-labels also reflects the growing number of sustainability-aware consumers, who have a varying, though overlapping, set of concerns. An eco-label logo on the food package can be valuable for the food manufacturer, as it reassures the consumer that the food has been through a certification process and is adhering to a standard. While that much is true, consumers generally only have a vague understanding of the full set of rules represented by each eco-logo. Therefore, the labels that are most successful with consumers are those that clearly express the intent behind the rules: “Dolphin-Safe” has a clear meaning, and so does “Gluten-Free.”

As difficult as it is for the consumers, the food companies also must navigate the maze of eco-labels. Sambazon, which produces organic energy drinks from Brazil-sourced acai berries, wanted to pursue Fair Trade certification in addition to Organic and Non-GMO Project certifications. But the Fair Trade organization did not have a set of rules specifically for acai berries, the way they did for coffee, tea, honey, cocoa and other popular ingredients. So Sambazon worked with Fair Trade to help them develop such a standard, and to make sure that the standard would be appropriate to the social and economic conditions of their sourcing regions.

Sambazon helped to develop a Fair Trade certification for Brazilian-sourced acai berries. (Credit: Rachelle S/Creative Commons)

But there are signs that this level of company involvement in standard-setting practices is taking additional steps. Some firms are now creating their own in-house food label standards, often with little to no third-party verification. Food brands “want to be in control of their own certification standards,” said Sugurman Raman, Director of Operations at Flocert, a global certification agency. Food giant Modelez, for example, owner of Cadbury and Oreo brands, has created the Cocoa Life eco-label that addresses the treatment of workers in cocoa-growing regions of Africa; this “first-party” label can thus supplant a third-party label such as Fair Trade that also addresses similar issues. In another case, Starbucks has created its CAFÉ Practices standard (CAFÉ stands for Coffee and Farmer Equity) to address sustainability concerns for its coffee sourcing practices. In this case, although the standard was created by Starbucks, it does include third-party verification.

Zego Snacks, a small producer of allergen-free snack bars, goes even further in making food production and quality information available to consumers. Zego can show the consumer the allergen-testing results of the batch from which a particular bar was made. Consumers can either text message or scan a QR code to reach a web site where they enter batch-specific information to see actual test results showing amounts, if any, of allergens such as peanuts, soy, milk, and gluten. Making such dynamic, item-specific data available to the end consumer is not easy, but may become a trend among brands targeting the most eco-friendly and health-conscious segment of the marketplace.

So where will the eco-label explosion lead? Will the growing saturation of eco-labels in the food industry render most of them meaningless? At the end of the day, a company’s decision whether to support any given label will ultimately come down to marketing and the costs of compliance. This means that eco-labels will need to educate the public. Only the consumer’s awareness of the logo and its clear identification with the particular environment or health cause behind it will result in widespread adherence by sustainability-focused food brands.