When it comes to seals of approval,
USDA Organic has plenty of company.
By Linda Melone
From organic to grassfed to rainforest certified, deciphering labels can make shopping a dizzying enterprise. What should you look for if you’re concerned about sustainability, pesticides or the treatment of workers producing the food? Certifying organizations exist to provide consistency for such claims, in which meeting the groups’ guidelines requires adhering to specific criteria—a manufacturer cannot simply label a product “certified” without meeting certain standards. Here are some of the certifications you’re likely to find and what they mean.
USDA Organic and USDA
Considered the gold standard in organic labeling, the USDA Organic certification is overseen by the National Organic Program, which regulates all organic crops, livestock and agricultural products certified to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. It indicates the adherence to strict production and labeling requirements. “The USDA Organic seal indicates the product has 95% or more organic content,” says Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. “Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.” In addition, USDA Process Verified indicates an animal was raised on a lifetime diet of 100% grass and forage. “Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain,” says Jones-Ellard. “And although USDA regulated, the grassfed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.”
International Certified Organic (QAI)
QAI is the leading third-party, USDA-accredited organic product certifying agency. It operates in the US, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Japan and Europe. “QAI is one of dozens of USDA accredited certifiers,” says Mark Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a group that monitors and promotes ecologically produced local and organic food. “Their certification means nothing more than the USDA seal,” Kastel says. “In fact, as one of the largest certifiers dealing with corporate agribusiness, they are on our watch list of those cutting corners with favorable rulings on behalf of manufacturers and marketers.”
Non-GMO Project Verified
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, refer to plants or animals genetically engineered for increased drought tolerance, increased yield or other benefit. A growing body of evidence associates GMOs with health and environmental problems. A nonprofit organization, the Non-GMO Project aims to preserve and build the non-GMO food supply, educate consumers and provide verified non-GMO choices. Its Non-GMO Project Verified Seal is currently the only independent verification in North America for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance.
“While no genetically engineered species of animals currently exist on the market, in conventional farming environments, including aquaculture, the animals are typically fed genetically engineered feed,” notes Kastel. The project’s board of directors includes leaders in the organic and natural foods industry.
Certified Naturally Grown
Small-scale farmers may find USDA Organic paperwork requirements daunting, so this nonprofit group offers certification tailored to smaller farms and direct-market farmers and beekeepers.
Farmers granted the CNG certification do not use synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones or GMOs. CNG does not certify processed foods and does not allow rotenone, a pesticide allowed with restrictions under the USDA standards. Based on the National Organic Program, CNG requires similar adherence to governmental standards but farmers are not allowed to market their products as organic under this label. CNG allows smaller farms to get credit for good practices while showing accountability to their customers. Other farmers, not third-party auditors, carry out inspections.
Established in 2003, the American Grassfed Association promotes the grassfed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education. Standards are verified by third-party, independent audits. The AGA standard requires that animals have eaten only grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement and have never been fed growth hormones or antibiotics. This differs from the USDA grassfed standard, which allows the use of such substances in grassfed animals.
Certified Humane Raised
The Certified Humane Raised and Handled program was developed by Humane Farm Animal Care; it is endorsed by the ASPCA and other humane organizations. “It looks out for the health of the livestock,” says Jayson Calton, PhD, nutrition scientist and author (with his wife, Mira) of Rich Food, Poor Food (Primal Blue Print Publishing), who says how an animal is treated makes a difference in its flavor and nutritional quality. This certification “is similar to American Humane Certified (a program of the American Humane Association), Animal Welfare Approved (the newest and strictest of the certification and labeling programs) and Global Animal Partnership, a program used by Whole Foods Market that aims to improve the welfare of animals in agriculture.” Animals must have adequate space, shelter and limited stress, along with ample fresh water and a diet of quality feed, without added antibiotics or hormones. Cages and crates are forbidden.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
The Rainforest Alliance represents an effort to ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, consumer behavior and business operations. Responding to a growing demand for sustainability, the group works with people whose livelihoods depend on the land, promoting the health and well-being of these people and their communities, as well as conserving wildlife and wilderness. “You’ll most often find the logo on chocolate and coffee products such as Hershey’s,” says Calton.
Fair Trade Certified
The Fair Trade label indicates that the grower paid its laborers a fair wage. “Think of ‘fair trade’ as being to local economies and their workers what ‘organic’ is to the environment and food,” says Calton. Fair Trade promotes organic farming but the label does not necessarily indicate the product is also certified organic, although nearly half of all Fair Trade imports are. Fair Trade Certified products include coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa, fresh produce, sugar, beans and grains. “Although fair trade coffee may cost you a bit more, you are paying it forward by supporting fair wages for workers in developing countries,” says Calton.
Better Cotton Initiative
Started by the international home furnishings retailer IKEA, the Better Cotton Initiative is meant to make cotton production more sustainable. “BCI works with a diverse range of stakeholders to promote measurable and continuing improvements for the environment, farming communities and the economies of cotton-producing areas,” says Calton. Goals include reducing the environmental impact of cotton production, promoting economic development in places where cotton is grown, improving commitment to and flow of more sustainably produced cotton throughout the supply chain and ensuring the initiative’s credibility.
Marine Stewardship Council
The Marine Stewardship Council is a nonprofit certification program that uses impartial third-party verification to promote sustainable fishing practices. “The blue MSC label ensures wild-caught sustainability, so your favorite fish can be enjoyed for years to come,” says Calton. The label only applies to wild-capture fisheries, regardless of their size, type or location; it does not apply to farmed fish. To meet the MSC standard, fishing activity must be at a level sustainable for the fish population and must operate so activity can continue indefinitely without exploiting resources.
Fishing operations should be managed to maintain the structure, function and productivity of the ecosystem on which they depend and should meet all local, national and international laws.
The Seafood Watch program offers consumers Best Choice, Good Alternative, Avoid and Super Green List ratings to help them choose seafood based on environmentally friendly practices and sustainability. “They do not take into account whether genetically modified organisms or GMOs are used in the feed, however,” notes Calton. Sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch partners with other seafood awareness campaigns such as the Seafood Choices Alliance, which provides seafood purveyors with recommendations on seafood choices. The Seafood Watch staff does in-depth research to create its Seafood Report.
Friend of the Sea
This nonprofit organization strives to conserve marine habitat. The Friend of the Sea certification applies to products originating from both sustainable wild fisheries and aquaculture. Founded by Paolo Bray, director of the Dolphin-Safe Project (which protects dolphins during tuna hunting), Friend of the Sea criteria includes the establishment of a waste management system and that there be no impact on critical habitat such as wetlands, fishing methods do not affect the seabed and a social accountability system be in place.
The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ Leaping Bunny Program administers a cruelty-free standard and offers the Leaping Bunny logo to cosmetic, personal care and household product manufacturers that meet the group’s criteria. “It provides the best assurance that no new animal testing is used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories or suppliers,” says Calton. In order to become certified, a company’s ingredient suppliers must be open to independent audits; commitments are renewed annually.