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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: Use These Labels and Resources to Know Your Food

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you an easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

American shoppers are becoming increasingly conscious about what's in their food, as is evident in the backlash against the country's first GMO-labeling legislation passed earlier this year.

But a growing number of food and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies aren't waiting for the government to mandate ingredients disclosure and supply chain improvements. They're turning to third-party verifiers in an effort to appeal to knowledge-hungry buyers.

So, if you want to learn more about what's in your food, this drill-down of common food labels can help.

USDA Organic

In the world of organic labeling, accept no substitutions. Companies that sell or label a product as "organic" when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $11,000 for each violation.

The USDA Organic label appears on thousands of food products from a bevy of major brands. It calls for a specific set of farming practices, such as the elimination of certain pesticides and fertilizers, to minimize impact on the environment and human health.

For animal products, USDA organic requires some outdoor access -- although it does not specify the quality or quantity.

Transitional organic

Despite all the benefits organic agriculture has to offer, it can be expensive for many farmers to get certified. And it takes three years to earn the coveted certification, during which time farmers spend money to change their practices without getting a higher premium for their products.

Kellogg subsidiary Kashi -- known best for cereals and snack bars -- set out to solve this problem and help more farmers on their journey to organic. Through a partnership with Quality Assurance International (QAI) and Hesco, the company launched the Certified Transitional label this spring. The label recognizes farmers for the work they do in those three years before going fully organic, and helps Kashi find new suppliers.

Only two months later, Kashi released its first product containing Certified Transitional ingredients -- a sweet breakfast cereal fittingly called Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits. The certification will soon be apply to any crop, from fruits and grains to cotton.

3p's Nick Aster caught up with Nicole Nestojko, senior director of supply chain for Kashi, at the 2016 Sustainable Brands Conference to discuss further. Click here to watch the video

Fair Trade Certified


Shoppers may notice the Fair Trade Certified label on products like coffee and cocoa. The label indicates a product was made with respect to people and planet.

Fairtrade America, which upholds the Fair Trade Certification for U.S. goods, puts producers against a rigorous set of social, environmental and economic standards. Its requirements seek seek to promote safe and healthy working conditions, protect the environment, enable transparency, and empower communities to build strong, thriving businesses. Fair Trade USA also certifies fair trade products in the U.S.

When perusing international products, you might also see the Fair Trade International logo seen at right. Fair Trade International is a separate organization which also has strong Fair Trade standards.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

You may have noticed a little green frog on the window of your local coffee shop, a bushel of fruit at the market or a chocolate bar at your favorite health-food haunt. Emblematic of Rainforest Alliance certification, the frog ensures key commodities shoppers crave do not contribute to deforestation.

Products bearing the seal originate on -- or contain ingredients sourced from -- Rainforest Alliance Certified farms or forests. These areas are managed according to rigorous criteria designed to conserve wildlife, safeguard soils and waterways, protect workers and their communities, and increase livelihoods, the organization says.

In addition to common food commodities -- such as cocoa, coffee, tea and palm oil -- the Alliance also certifies tourism lodges, which must meet its comprehensive sustainability standards for tourism.

Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project Standard is reserved for products with a truly GMO-free supply chain. The consensus-based Standard is modified and opened for public comment regularly to keep it rigorous, current and collaborative, the nonprofit says.

Thousands of products bear the Non-GMO Project butterfly seal. And several large brands, including Dannon, are working to place the label on their products soon.

Animal welfare standards

In a 2013 survey conducted by the American Humane Association, 89 percent of those polled said they were very concerned about farm animal welfare, and 74 percent said they were willing to pay more for humanely-raised meat, dairy and eggs.

This market shift has food producers scrambling to add animal welfare labels to their products. But shoppers should be aware of what these labels mean before they buy.

  • Cage-free: In standard systems, egg-laying hens are confined to small battery cages measuring only 67 inches. A growing awareness of this cruel practice inspired companies to go cage-free en masse. Almost 200 U.S. companies, including every major grocery store and fast-food chain, have pledged to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025.

  • Free range: While cage-free systems only guarantee hens aren't confined to battery cages, free range agriculture for chickens and turkeys goes one step further. The system calls for animals to be given outdoor access, although the Humane Society of the United States notes it does not specify the quality or quantity.

  • Grass-fed: Grass-fed is the free-range equivalent for ruminant animals (cows, sheep and goats). As the name implies, grass-fed animals subsist on grass for their entire lives, with the exception of their mothers' milk, requiring access to pasture.

  • Hormone free: This label on milk and dairy products means dairy cows were not treated with hormones to increase milk production. These labels may also appear on beef.

  • Animal Welfare Approved:  Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute. In a nutshell, this standard: requires animals to be raised on pasture or range, prohibits dual production (raising some animals industrially while keeping a small set according to high welfare standards, awards approval only to family farmers and incorporates comprehensive standards for high welfare farming. Compliance is verified through auditing by the labeling program.

  • Certified Humane: Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care. Producers must meet breed-specific animal care standards, from birth through slaughter. Animals are never kept in cages, crates, or tie stalls. Animals must be free to do what comes naturally. Animals be fed a diet of quality feed, without animal by-products, antibiotics or growth hormones. Producers must comply with food safety and environmental regulations. Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards (AMI), a slaughter standard written by Dr. Temple Grandin. Compliance is ensured through third-party audits.

Seafood standards

Overfishing and human rights abuses threaten the sustainability of the seafood supply chain. But a growing number of seafood companies are seeking third-party verification to gain goodwill with customers. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council Certification seal on wild-caught fish and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council Certification seal on farmed fish.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/neetalperekh; 2) Flickr/Tim Beirbach; 3) Flickr/Sally Crossthwaite; 4) Flickr/Jasper Nance; 5) Flickr/Walmart
Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni