Sticker Smart

Eco-labels are proliferating on “green” products. Here’s how to read them

By H.K. Jones

October 2006

Chances are you know what a “Dolphin-Safe” label signifies on a can of tuna fish, but what about a tag that reads “NutriClean” or “Fair Trade Certified” on other foods? These are all examples of eco-labels, which are designations (seals or logos) that identify a preference for a product or service—within a specific product/service category—based on the environmental impact of the product or service throughout its life.

The most helpful eco-labels indicate that an independent organization has verified that a product meets a set of meaningful and consistent standards for environmental concerns (such as the use of renewable resources and soil, air and water pollution) or social issues (including animal welfare and the decent treatment of farm workers). It may be a mouthful, but eco-labels are popping up on products all over the place, with around 140 different items currently appearing on various consumer offerings.

Reading Between the Logos

The explosion of eco-labels on foods comes from manufacturers who are anxious to meet the demand for healthy, good-for-the-planet goods—or at least cash in on it. Eco-labels in grocery and health food stores are proliferating partly because marketing products as “green” and environmentally conscious has become profitable. But what’s good for the free-range, grass-fed goose is not always good for the gander.

It’s no surprise that consumers are confused. How do you take your coffee—shade-grown, bird-friendly or from a protected harvest? Do you like your chicken antibiotic-free, organic or natural?
What makes matters more difficult is that not every eco-label is reliable. For one thing, there is no meaningful federal supervision of “green” labels (other than the US Department of Agriculture [USDA]-Certified Organic). Furthermore, many labels are not certified by an impartial third party based on defined environmental leadership criteria. So what’s an eco-conscious shopper to do?

According to a recent Tufts University report written by professors Kathleen Merrigan and William Lockeretz, a credible eco-label must be “based on transparent, meaningful and verifiable standards, be independently certified by a third party to ensure those standards are met, and be certified by an accredited certifier to ensure the certifier is up to the task.” Sound complicated? Fortunately there’s help.

The Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, has a user-friendly online resource (www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels) that takes the stress out of evaluating all those little logos. Reliable, up-to-date information quickly get consumers to the eco-label bottom line—namely, what does the label mean and can I trust it?

Here’s what some of the most common eco-labels on food will (and will not) tell you about what’s inside the package.

Eco-label: USDA-Certified Organic

Where you might find it: All foods.
What it means to you: The organic label is perhaps the most recognized and widespread eco-label used today. The USDA has developed a fixed set of standards that must be met by anyone using the organic label in the United States. Foods that carry the seal have been cultivated and processed without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation. Sewage sludge is a prohibited soil amendment. Animals are raised on 100% organic feed and not given antibiotics or growth hormones.  Unlike conventional farming, organic farming does not erode and deplete the soil, and produces less pollution of land, water and air. Organic farming is also less likely to endanger wildlife.

In addition, organically grown crops mature more slowly, so they have more time to extract nutrients from the soil. Greater quantities of calcium, magnesium and vitamin C have all been found in organic produce.

One caveat: “Organic” is not synonymous with “healthy”; such foods can be loaded with saturated fat, sugar and calories. For example, organic cookies are still, well, cookies.

Eco-label: Dolphin-Safe

Where you might find it: Tuna.
What it means to you: One of the most popular eco-labels used nationwide is the Dolphin-Safe label on some brands of canned tuna fish. The silhouette of a dolphin is supposed to clue you in that dolphins were not intentionally killed or injured while harvesting the tuna packaged by that processing company.

Eco-label: Natural

Where you might find it: All foods.
What it means to you: “Natural” implies that the product and packaging is environmentally friendly and does not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients. Meat and poultry carrying this claim do not contain artificial flavors or colors, or chemical preservatives, and are minimally processed. It does not mean that the animal was raised in a more “natural” environment, nor does it mean it wasn’t eating any animal byproducts or antibiotics.

What does a Natural label on other foods signify? Not much. Any food company manufacturing a product can decide to call its product “natural” and there is no organization independently certifying this claim. As of now, no standard definition for this term exits.

Also keep in mind that “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable. Only food labeled USDA-Certified Organic meets the recognized standards.

Eco-label: NutriClean

Where you might find it: Fruits and vegetables.
What it means to you: Products with this label have been tested for pesticide residues to be sure they meet acceptable levels as established by the Scientific Certification System’s (SCS) NutriClean program. However, this label does not mean that there were no pesticides used, only that the product does not exceed SCS tolerable levels.

Eco-label: Bird-Friendly

Where you might find it: Coffee.
What it means to you: The objective of the Bird-Friendly program is to verify that coffee has been grown under conditions that support healthy bird habitats using a tree canopy with a minimum of 40% shade. This label also indicates that the coffee is grown organically according to USDA standards.

Eco-label: Fair Trade Certified

Where you might find it: Coffee, hot chocolate, tea, chocolate bars, cocoa powder, bananas, grapes, mangoes, pineapples, rice and sugar.

What it means to you: The Fair Trade program ensures that farmers and laborers receive a fair price for their product, that trade is done directly between farmer-owned cooperatives and buyers, and that crops are grown using soil and water conservation measures which restrict the use of agrochemicals. Small-scale producers who have been democratically organized in either cooperatives or unions must also have grown the products.

Eco-label: Free-Range

Where you might find it: Beef, chicken and eggs.
What it means to you: If you think that “free-range” chickens, cows and egg-laying hens roam around grassy fields, bask in the sunlight and engage in other natural habits, think again. Free-Range on beef and eggs is completely unregulated, and although Free-Range poultry is regulated by the USDA, it requires that birds have been given access to the outdoors for an undetermined period daily.

Eco-label: Rainforest Alliance

Where you might find it: Coffee, orange juice, chocolate bars and bananas.
What it means to you: This label appears on crops grown using integrated pest management systems that limit the usage of agrochemicals and that use water, soil and tropical-habitat conservation measures. Crop laborers are also paid salaries and benefits equal to or greater than the legal minimum wage of their countries.Eco-labels have emerged as a promising bridge linking consumers with both farmers and food companies that place a premium on environmental and social issues. However, there are eco-labels to trust and those that should cause you to raise a skeptical eyebrow. If you want to put your dollars where your ethics are, investigate before you buy.

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