Food production shouldn't be a mystery: Reading behind food eco-labels

Original Publication: Chicago Tribune

By McKenzie Hall, R.D., Environmental Nutrition Newsletter | Premium Health News Service

What's in my food? How is it made? These are questions consumers are increasingly concerned about when it comes to purchasing food, according to the Natural Products Industry Forecast 2014, released by New Hope Natural Media and the marketing research organization Sterling-Rice Group.

Labeling food products to identify production practices and the pedigree of ingredients is a practice food producers are adopting as a way to give transparency to consumers. Yet, with the new certifications and seals popping up on hundreds of products in the supermarket, it can be difficult to determine if they're beneficial from a nutritional, environmental, or human rights standpoint.EN lifts the lid on some of today's hottest eco-labels to help you better utilize your purchasing power.



Food products, such as coffee, tea, bananas, and nuts, as well as non-food products like apparel and body care products, with the Fair Trade Certified trademark indicate that producers and traders have met Fair Trade standards established by Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization and third party certifier of Fair Trade products.

The standards aim to ensure disadvantaged farmers and workers are justly compensated for their labor under adequate health and safety standards. Fair Trade USA partners with SCS Global Services to conduct compliance assessments. Producers are required to be paid a Fair Trade price for their goods--a base commodity price that covers the cost of sustainable production--with an additional Fair Trade premium invested back into their communities.

In addition, all Fair Trade Certified products do not contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Where to find it: In the U.S., Fair Trade Certified products include coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa, fresh fruit, vegetables, sugar, beans, grains, flowers, nuts, oils, butters, honey, spices, wine and apparel. Fair Trade Certified ingredients are also used in ready-to-drink beverages and spirits.


While this seal does not guarantee a product completely free of GMOs, due to limitations in testing products and the high risk of contamination with non-GMO ingredients, it does indicate the highest standards of non-GMO verification currently available in the US and Canada.

The seal, established by the California-based non-profit organization, Non-GMO Project, indicates products contain no more than 0.9 percent GMO ingredients.

Where to find it: Look for the Non-GMO Project seal on processed products, such as snack foods, breakfast cereals, soups, sauces, baby food, pet products, dairy products and dairy alternatives.


When you see the USDA Organic label, it means the food was produced without the use of non-approved synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, irradiation and sewage sludge. Non-organic ingredients may be used in the product for a combined total of five percent, excluding salt and water.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates the regulations behind any food with the USDA Organic label by using a third party certification system, which follows established organic regulations.


In order to make this claim, all ingredients must be certified organic. These products may use the USDA Organic seal.


At least 70 percent of the product must be made with certified organic ingredients. The product must not use the USDA organic seal or state "made with organic ingredients." Rather, the label must identify specific ingredients, for example "organic wheat."

Where to Find It: Processed products, such as nutrition bars, breakfast cereals and snack foods, plus chocolate, coffee, tea, dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry and produce.


This seal indicates that no antibiotics are included in the animal food, no growth hormones are administered to livestock, and pesticides used for crops are limited to those recommended by the World Health Organization. Agricultural producers are also examined for biodiversity and conservation practices, such as soil erosion prevention and water conservation.

Criteria for labor conditions also must be met. As a non-profit organization and third-party verification system, Food Alliance Certified inspectors evaluate practices to ensure they meet all criteria. Where to find it: Dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, seafood and produce.


Before selling any products with the Animal Welfare Approved seal, farmers must certify their animals have continual access to pasture, as well as the freedom to perform instinctive behaviors, such as interaction with other animals. Slaughter standards for red meat and poultry, such as limiting animal stress and prohibiting the use of electrical prods, must also be met.

As a non-profit and third-party verification system, Animal Welfare Approved performs audits and certifies that farmers meet the standards developed by scientists, veterinarians, researchers and farmers.

Where to find it: Dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry.


The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit organization which works to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable practices all around the world. The Rainforest Alliance Certified trademark seal indicates third-party standards established by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) have been met in food production, including safe and fair treatment of workers and protection of habitats and wildlife.

Even businesses involved in buying, trading, or mixing food products must achieve SAN certification in order to call their products Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Where to find it: The certification standards apply to over 100 types of crops and livestock, such as cocoa, coffee, flowers, fruit, tea and vegetables from Africa, Latin America, Asia and Hawaii.

(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384.


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Linda Brown | Senior Vice President
SCS Global Services
To find out more, contact Linda Brown, or call 510.452.8010.