December 12th, 2018

Decoding & Understanding Food Sustainability Labels

As consumers become better informed and more interested in where the food they’re buying comes from, sustainability and welfare labels are popping up everywhere. And while it makes finding sustainable, environmentally-friendly food a little overwhelming, understanding what those food labels really mean allows you to ensure you get exactly what you’re looking for.

There are many sustainability labels out there, but here we’ll focus on the ones that are the most reliable – in other words, ones that are regulated and can typically be trusted. If you want to ensure the food and food products you’re buying aren’t negatively impacting the environment and the surrounding communities, these are some of the key labels you should look for:

  • Certified organic. Food with this label is certified by annual USDA-approved independent inspections. You can be sure that it wasn’t grown using harmful synthetic fertilizers or chemicals, and that it is free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you see this label on meat, it means that the animals were only fed organic feed.
  • Marine Stewardship Council. You’ll find this label on fish and other seafood that meets the MSC environmental standard for sustainable fishing. Ideally, all seafood you buy should be certified sustainable by the MSC, since they evaluate the condition of fish stocks, the impact of a fishery on the marine environment, and the fishery management systems that are in place.
  • Rainforest alliance certified. Based on the standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network, this certification ensures that crops are grown sustainably and that workers are treated fairly. Producers are certified each year by an independent inspector and are subject to surprise audits at any time. With thousands of ‘green frog-certified’ items on every continent except Antarctica, you’re likely to come across this certification during your weekly shop.
  • Dolphin-safe. This certification is generally only found on tuna, but it’s an important one. Products with this label are certified by the Earth Island Institute, which confirms that there was no intentional chasing or netting of dolphins, no use of drift gill nets, and no accidental killing or serious injury.
  • Fair trade certified. Items with the fair trade label are certified by TransFair USA, and you’ll often come across this label on products that contain coffee, tea, bananas, and chocolate. Fair trade means that farmers receive fair prices and their workers receive fair wages, and it helps provide them with more direct access to the global market.
  • Food Alliance certified. Food and products with this label are certified for sustainable agriculture practices and social responsibility. The certification includes such factors as safe and fair working conditions, the humane treatment of animals, and no use of hormones or GMOs. It also encourages reduced pesticide use and the conservation of soil, water, and wildlife habitats.

You might ask why sustainability labels are even necessary. There’s a general consensus that food production is incredibly costly – and not just in monetary terms, but in terms of the impact it has on surrounding communities and the environment. In fact, the food system is responsible for up to one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the FAO. Many consumers are interested in reducing their environmental impact and ensuring workers are treated fairly, and the idea is that these labels can help them make sense of the impact that their food choices have.

Of course, the labels currently in use don’t offer a full picture, and doing so would require a complete analysis of every step of the food production process. But until we’re able to devise a single sustainability labeling system that encompasses dozens (or, more likely, hundreds) of different factors, they are a great start.

(Read more about Chile and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation)

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