Why certify?

Posted by on Dec 14, 2011 | 0 comments

Certified organic, free-range chickens on a local farm

Pastured, free range chickens

Yesterday I gave a talk at NYU about sustainability certification–organic, fair trade, and others. Some of the questions students had were really solid and thoughtful, which made me think it might be useful to post some responses and thoughts on the subject.

Any stamp on a label is put there to tell you, the customer, something about the product. The price tag tells you how much someone wants you to pay. The ingredients list tells you what’s inside. The name “Chianti” tells you that the wine came from a certain part of Italy and contains certain grapes. “Fair Trade” tells you that the farmers who grew it were paid fair wages. “USDA Organic” tells you that synthetic chemicals weren’t used in its production.

Information on a label is supposed to influence you to make good buying decisions. This is even true when a label has misleading information; a lie is still information, even if it’s wrong. Remember, too, that according to a company, buying their product is always a good decision. So when are supposed to be able to trust a label?

Some customers hold them to a higher standard–they think of the label as something more.

That’s where a third-party certification steps in. Fair Trade USA, for instance, guarantees that no matter who you’re buying from, the farmers who grew that product are paid a certain amount of money above market value. They have a system of partners in place who track where their products come from and how much is paid at each step of the way. They also help to link farmers and cooperatives directly to companies who will be using the Fair Trade USA label, which cuts out middlemen, and in some areas they work directly with farmers to improve quality and yield to help them earn even more. There are also some minimal environmental guidelines that farmers certified by Fair Trade USA must follow. Everyone wins.

Most buyers of fairly traded products don’t know all this, though–they just know that they trust the label. Certifiers can get in trouble when they violate that trust, however, and Fair Trade USA has some of its die-hard customers up in arms because they recently started allowing large industrial farms, and not just small farmers, to earn their label. These larger farmers are still getting a good price for their products, and they’re following all the rules, but some customers hold them to a higher standard–they think of the Fair Trade USA label as something more. When certification labeling embeds information that appeals to our values systems and emotions, as with fairly traded or organic products, it also appeals to our self-image. Am I the kind of person who supports rainforest conservation, who doesn’t like chemicals on his food, who supports small farmers?

Information, trust, values, and self-image. That little label has some pretty big shoes to fill.

Audubon Magazine recently published a compendium of some of the more common labels, breaking them down according to how trustworthy they are. Here’s a short summary.

  • USDA Organic 
- Produced without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, sludge, irradiation, or genetically modified seeds. Cows have access to pasture 120 days or more per year. Four tiers: “100% organic,” “organic” (95% or more of ingredients), “Made with organic” (70%), and listing of organic ingredients.
  • Demeter Biodynamic 
- A whole-farm approach that combines organic production and biodynamic crop management with biodiversity conservation and the humane treatment of animals.
  • Rainforest Alliance
 – Certification aims to reduce water pollution and soil erosion, protect human health, conserve wildlife habitat, improve livelihoods, and reduce waste.
  • Food Alliance 
- Certifiers assess a farm or ranch in soil and water conservation, safe and fair working conditions for employees, integrated pest management to limit pesticide use, animal welfare, and habitat conservation.
  • Fair Trade – 
Looks at economic, social, and environmental criteria: farmers are paid living wages and have safe working conditions; child labor is prohibited. Fair trade premiums are invested in community development, such as training and organic certification. Most pesticides and all GMOs are banned.
  • Salmon-Safe – Salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest are protected from farm runoff, chemicals, and erosion. Often combined with USDA Organic to provide a “beyond organic” certification.
  • Bird Friendly – This label independently certifies organic shade-grown coffee. Tree canopy height, plant diversity, shade coverage, and streamside plant borders must all meet specific criteria. Certified shade-grown coffee farms provide important sanctuaries for migrating birds.
  • Certified Humane Raised and Handled – Endorsed by animal welfare and food safety organizations, this focuses on humane animal care standards from birth through slaughter. For example, animals must be free to move about and “engage in natural behavior.” Chickens have room to flap their wings, and pigs have space to move around and root. Cages, crates, and tie stalls are prohibited, as is the use of growth hormones and prophylactic antibiotics.

Buyer Beware
  • Raised Without Antibiotics – While “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics” are considered acceptable by the USDA, there is no verification system in place. The specific “antibiotic free” claim is considered “unapprovable” by the USDA.
  • Natural – Abused because it doesn’t have to mean anything. USDA has defined the term only for use on fresh meat, which means nothing added to the cut of meat itself. You could have a cloned animal eating genetically modified food and being fed antibiotics every day and the product could still be labeled “natural.”
  • Free Range – “The poultry has been allowed access to the outside,” according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The animals may get only short periods outside in a cramped area–the USDA considers five minutes adequate to approve use of the claim. There is no third-party auditing.
  • United Egg Producers Certified – A logo used by the United Egg Producers, who factory farm poultry, that should really mean “Do not buy these eggs”: cramped cages, starvation-based molting, dehydrated birds, denial of veterinary care.
  • Dolphin Safe – There are no set standards in place for this label, and most companies have developed their own logos, so often it means nothing. You can trust this label on tuna also labeled, “US Department of Commerce.”
  • Grass Fed – Make sure the label specifies “100% grass fed.” Verification of the claim is voluntary, so you should also look for the USDA Process Verified shield. The agency has defined the label to mean that the cows were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent grass and forage, with no grains or grain products. The cows must also have access to pasture during most of the growing season.

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