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How to read food labels when you’re looking for organic, ethical, or sustainable products

Let’s be honest: Living an ethical, sustainable, green life can definitely be filed as one of those things that’s far easier said than done. Just thinking about your carbon footprint — much less figuring out how to offset it; create less waste; recycle properly and responsibly; and be the most eco-friendly traveler, gift giver, and pet owner — is enough to send anyone into a tailspin. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t get easier when it comes to shopping for one of the most basic necessities: food. When you're shopping for dinner, knowing how to read food labels when you're faced with a wide variety of options can seem not only time consuming, but completely overwhelming.

Not for lack of trying, though. In fact, it seems nearly impossible to go to the grocery store and not find a vast variety of official-looking labels on everything from meat, to eggs, to granola bars — all telling you something theoretically great and important about what you’re about to buy and how wonderfully sustainable it is.

“Consumers are wanting to know more about their food, but at the same time they want their food to be simplified,” Tamika D. Sims, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC), tells Mic. “They don’t want anything to be added to the food, or have the food produced in a way that is ‘unnatural.’” In their 2019 Food and Health Survey, the IFIC found that more than 50% of consumers believe it's at least somewhat important to make sustainable food purchases — but more than 60% reported difficulty identifying what foods are sustainable when in the store.

“There are labels that companies use to state that the food product has been sourced in an ethical way or sourced in a sustainable way, but it is a difficult thing to navigate,” she says. “People...want labels to quickly give them good information about what they’re buying; and while there are some labels that are really useful in helping you understand what you’re buying, unfortunately there are some...that really aren’t as useful." But how exactly can you tell the difference? It starts with getting a basic understanding of the food label landscape.

Who regulates and oversees food labels?

There’s no single governing body for food labels. In fact, there are many, and most of them are completely independent from the government, with the exception of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Certification. The standards for the USDA organic label — which you can find on meat, eggs, and dairy — were established with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Other official seals you see on food are typically created by non-profit or trade organizations, Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst with Consumer Reports, tells Mic. Those organizations are “filling this gap in food labeling, which is that there are no government standards for things like animal welfare on farms or treating farm workers fairly,” she says. “That’s why you see non-profit organizations developing their own standards and their own verification process and certification, essentially for assuring consumers that certain standards were met.” (The federal Animal Welfare Act doesn’t cover “farm animals used for food or fiber,” per the USDA’s website.)

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How do the labels get on the food we see at the store?

While the specific standards vary among labels, each organization has a certification process — which Vallaeys says may include submitting documentation and agreeing to inspections — that producers (such as farms) must go through before they can actually use the label on their packaging. In most cases, she adds, the producers have to pay fees that cover the cost of the inspection and the certification program; though there are some grants available that can help alleviate the costs.

And, in the case of USDA organic, Vallaeys says some small farms may qualify for a federal cost share program that limits how much they’ll pay out of pocket. With the available financial aid, even small, sustainable farms can theoretically go through these processes — and you don't have to choose between supporting a small business and buying something that's certified organic or otherwise sustainable.

That said, not all labels are created equal; so it's important to read up on where they come from and what they actually mean.

Can I trust labels to mean what they say?

That answer is, unfortunately, fairly complicated and depends very much on the label itself. Outside of third-party certified labels — those seals that say things like USDA organic, Animal Welfare Approved, and Non-GMO Project Verified — there’s a slew of very unofficial, first-party labels and claims that producers may slap on their packaging. Terms like “humanely-raised,” “antibiotic free,” “cage free,” and “natural” lack legal or third-party definitions and oversight.

While “natural” may seem to indicate similar conditions as “organic,” Vallaeys says that “couldn’t be further from the truth.” In reality, the government only regulates the use of the term in meat, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI); and the only standards producers need to uphold are to contain no artificial ingredients or added color, and be “minimally processed,” per the USDA’s website. “The manufacturer can pretty much decide what they think it means and then put natural on their label,” Vallaeys says. And they have good incentive to do so: According to a 2016 Consumer Reports study, 73 percent of buyers specifically shop for "natural" foods (while only 58 percent seek out "organic"

As for “cage free,” and “free range,” two oft-used claims on poultry products, experts note they don’t mean the birds are roaming freely on sprawling pastures. According to AWI, on egg cartons, “cage free” only means the animals literally weren’t confined to cages, but they could have been confined to indoor barns. “Free range” means they were allowed some access to the outdoors, but there’s no guideline on how long or how often that access needs to be.

The latter is also the case for poultry slaughtered and sold as meat; “cage free” on those packages, though, is essentially meaningless as, per the AWI, birds raised for meat aren’t typically kept in cages. The USDA does offer a USDA Processed Verified label that producers can receive after an auditor independently verifies marketing claims like “raised cage free” or “certified tender;” but as Consumer Reports notes on its website, that program simply verifies producers are following the standards they set for themselves, not that those standards are meaningful.

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That’s only scratching the surface of marketing claims you’ll find on food packaging; but with any of them, it’s best to take them with a grain of salt unless they’re accompanied by a reliable certified claim. “If consumers feel that there has been some fraud or deception in the marketplace, they can file class-action suits against misleading labels,” Dr. Urvashi Rangan, chief scientist at FoodPrint, tells Mic. “That is typically how enforcement on those labels has been executed. ...They tend to be not the most accountable, not that meaningful, [and] not verified. ...They don’t have an accountability system built into them.”

With certified labels, however, there are typically “annual inspections, paperwork, a paper trail,” Rangan says. If a producer doesn’t meet the certification requirements but still uses the label, the organization can insist the producer stops doing so — though, as Vallaeys notes, the third-party organizations don’t “have the legal backing that USDA organic has.” Because the USDA organic program is a federal law, farmers who violate its regulations face legal penalties, including up to $17,952 in fines per violation.

That said, the U.S. organic market is not free from fraud. Aside from a potential conflict of interest that may arise due to certifying agents marketing themselves to and being paid directly by farmers; Chenglin Liu, a law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law who specializes in food and drug law, tells Mic it’s difficult to regulate products imported from foreign countries. While there are accredited certifiers in foreign countries, “the question is if a foreign farmer has any incentive to observe the U.S. law,” Liu says, noting a foreign prosecutor or judge isn’t required to uphold U.S. law. “The U.S. legal system can only go so far, to the border of the U.S.,” he says.

That’s not to say the USDA organic label is meaningless, but Liu recommends shoppers seek out "U.S.-made [or grown] product, because it’s subjected to more regulations.”

What are some of the most common labels to look out for?

USDA Organic: To qualify as USDA Organic, farmers are heavily restricted on the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they can’t use any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or antibiotics (if animals need to be treated, they simply can’t be sold as organic, Vallaeys says). Vallaeys notes the organic standards also include requirements for maintaining water and soil quality. That said, only 95% of the ingredients used in the food need to be organic, which means some non-organic substances (about 200, as The Washington Post reported) can be used. And while organic may mean your food is mostly free from chemicals, “organic and ethical have nothing to do with one another,” Sims says. The federal organic program includes only minimal animal welfare standards, according to AWI, and doesn’t ensure significant outdoor freedom or humane slaughter.

Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW: If you’re concerned about animal welfare, this is the label to look for. It’s “the best one out there,” Vallaeys says. “It has standards that really meet consumers’ expectations for what it means to be humanely raised,” like requiring animals to be outdoors.

American Grassfed: If you're looking for grassfed meat, Vallaeys suggests seeking out this label which ensures animals were only fed grass and received no grain throughout their lives. And, she adds, “it goes further — it prohibits antibiotics and hormones [and] it means the animals were out on well-managed pasture.” The Certified Grassfed by AGW label is another that’s consistently rated positively by organizations like Consumer Reports and FoodPrint.

Non-GMO Project Verified: If you want your food to be free of genetically engineered ingredients, the Non-GMO Project Verified label will assure you that’s the case, as will the USDA Organic label. Just keep in mind that while "USDA Organic" means products are GMO-free; "Non-GMO Project Verified" does not mean products are organic. “It doesn’t mean anything other than being non-GMO," Vallaeys says.

Marine Stewardship Council and Farmed Responsibly ASC Certified: The USDA doesn’t currently certify any seafood as organic (though they are in the process of developing those standards). if you see fish labeled “organic” in stores (a rare occurrence, according to Seafood Source), Vallaeys says it’s either improperly labeled or it was imported from a country that does have organic standards. That said, she recommends keeping an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council and Farmed Responsibly ASC Certified labels to find fish that were likely caught or farmed responsibly and sustainably. And remember, even if the U.S. doesn’t have organic standards for aquaculture, “all seafood and shellfish are still foods that are regulated by the USDA and FDA for safety and quality,” Sims says.

Food Justice Certification: As for fair treatment of workers, Rangan says the Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification label is a solid one that ensures things like health protections, insurance, and other important social justice standards. Fair Trade Certified and Fairtrade International labels also help ensure things like fair wages for workers, but aren’t quite as highly rated as the Food Justice Certification by Consumer Reports.

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What's the bottom line on how to shop for ethical and sustainable food?

In fact, “while you’re on this label hunt, you have to know that the U.S. has one of the safest and most reliable food systems in the world,” Sims says. “And part of that safety is attributable to the regulation companies have to undergo to ensure it.” The FDA, USDA, independent certifying organizations, and watchdog groups for all of those bodies are all working to not only make sure our food won't make us sick, but that we have the most relevant information when it comes to choosing what we put in our bodies.

For many people these types of food labels can act as another level of security that your values are being carried out in the way your food is raised or cultivated. “If you...care about animal welfare, but you can’t visit the farm and see for yourself whether those animals are living in humane conditions; the label is there really to ensure you that somebody went on your behalf,” Vallaeys says. “Somebody independent has gone to the farm.” And because for many consumers it’s also unrealistic to read through every detail of these independent labels’ standards, other independent organizations — like Consumer Reports, FoodPrint, and the Environmental Working Group — publish guides that break them down on your behalf. While you’re shopping, you can simply pull up these guides to get a quick debriefing on almost any label you see and what it means.

From there, it’s a matter of prioritizing the many options and deciding what makes the most sense for your values, wallet and lifestyle. “Understanding the landscape of value within labels, if you’re interested in sustainable food, is [important] so that you can actually put yourself on a fair playing field with what you’re buying...and what you’re supporting,” Rangan says. “And it can make a huge difference.”