Organic, non-gmo, cage free, free range, pastured raised, grass fed, grass finished, vegetarian fed... There are a LOT of ways to label food these days. It can be really overwhelming to keep up with what each of these means, and to distinguish between marketing mumbo-jumbo and legitimate quality standards.
It can also be very anxiety-inducing to stand at the egg section hovering between "cage free vegetarian fed" and "free range Omega-3 enriched". No one likes to be made to feel unintelligent like this - we all want to be able to efficiently buy our food AND have confidence in our choices.
So that's what I'd like to equip you with in the next series of posts: the information and peace of mind required to make excellent purchasing decisions that you understand and can stand behind.
First, let's set the stage: Today's post focuses on the pros and cons of labels, so that over the next few weeks we can view each specific label through this lens. We will border on a political topic in this post, and my goal is to provide as unbiased of a perspective as possible to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of food labeling.
What are food certification labels?
Food certification labels are created by an organization to categorize particular foods, so that a consumer can look for that label when determining whether to make a purchase or not.
So really the whole food labeling process begs the question: who is responsible for determining the quality of the food I buy? The intention of regulation in the food industry is to protect the employees and consumers from these inappropriate practices.
Food labeling by US government organizations dates back to the early 1900s in response to public outcry around abysmal labor practices and sanitary conditions in the meat packing industry, fueled in large part by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The most relevant USDA food label to this conversation is Organic.
Today, food certification can also be handled by 3rd party non-profit groups. These organizations are often started by lobbyists, farmers, and others who have spent their careers in the food industry or in the political sphere and believe that certification is best handled outside of the legislative process. Some examples of this type of food labeling are Certified Humane, Fair Trade, Non-GMO Project, Cage Free, Free Range, Grass Fed.
So what is the main purpose of food labeling? To ensure that a consumer who is unfamiliar with the supplier can validate a specific quality standard.
Now that we have this framework for what food labeling is, let's discuss the pros and cons of relying on this, starting with the pros:
PROS - When and why we should rely on food labels
- Food certification labels protect consumers unfamiliar with food production practices: In 1820, around 72% of the US population was employed in agriculture, and by the 1980s that had dropped to around 2%. It is safe to conclude that since the 1820s, the percent of our population that understands food production sufficiently to be able to assess food safety has significantly declined. Whether this is right or wrong, it reflects our current reality as a nation.
- Food certification labels protect consumers when they are purchasing on the road: Let's take an individual who is very familiar with agricultural practices as an example - when they are traveling to a new city where they are unfamiliar with local farmers, and shopping at new grocery stores, food labels help guide their purchasing habits to higher quality products.
CONS - Why we should NOT rely on food labels
- Relying on food labels abdicates the consumer from personal responsibility in trusting their food source: That's all these labels are, isn't it? They are a stamp saying "someone else investigated this company and confirmed they uphold these standards". The alternative is for an individual to call or visit the farmer that their food comes from to learn how their food is grown or raised, and whether they are comfortable with their farmer's practices.
- The food labeling industry is influenced by financial backers that can have competing agendas: The head of the USDA (which handles Organic certification) is nominated by the President, and President Trump's choice, Sonny Perdue, has $25M worth of holdings in Agri-businesses including a fertilizer company. This is not at all unique to the current administration, or even to government certifying organizations, and my intention with this statement is not to say that the USDA cannot be trusted. It is simply important to know which organization and which individuals are responsible for the certifications we rely on, as well as what their personal interests are.
There you go: a few perspectives from both sides... my goal is always to balance the ideal with the realistic and provide you with information and questions to allow you to come to conclusions you believe in. So I'd love to hear YOUR conclusions! In which situations should we rely on food certification labels?
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