What do 'ecolabels' tell about food?

Chances are you have seen a "dolphin-safe" label on a tuna fish can at the supermarket. You may be seeing more labels like it, and not just on tuna fish cans. In a Nutrition Today article on ecolabels, William Lockeretz, Ph.D., and Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., both professors at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, note that the "organic sector has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent for the past decade ...and ecolabels could soon move into the mainstream."

An ecolabel is used to indicate that a food has been produced in a way that is considered environmentally friendly. There are a broad range of labels that fall under the ecolabel category, including "various fair trade claims," and the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program's organic labels. According to Lockeretz and Merrigan, ecolabels can also encompass issues such as farm animal welfare, decent treatment of farm workers, and authenticity of a product.

Advocates for ecolabels describe them as a tool for eco-conscious consumers to support environmentally responsible agriculture and differentiate certain products from their competition. For example, France uses the "Label Rouge" ecolabel to indicate a free-range environment for poultry, but it also provides detailed information about the producer and farm responsible for raising the so-labeled poultry.

"The practices required to earn an ecolabel may focus on environmental impacts but the accompanying social criteria associated with these labels can, for many consumers, enhance the overall taste of the food. Consumers don't just taste food, they experience it and knowing a product came from a food system that treats farmers well may well enhance its flavor," note Lockeretz and Merrigan.

Some ecolabels focus more on addressing the environmental and social impact of the seed-to-table agricultural chain, intent on changing the mainstream cycle that focuses on quantity over quality and profit over environmental and social concerns, such as pesticides and the well-being of farm workers. But which ecolabels are to be believed?

In understanding ecolabels, Lockeretz and Merrigan stress that a credible ecolabel must:

  • Be based on transparent, meaningful, and verifiable standards
  • Be independently certified by a third party to ensure those standards are met
  • Be certified by an accredited certifier to ensure the certifier is up to the task

"As there is no meaningful federal oversight of ecolabels, other than the congressionally mandated USDA Organic Program, the burden is on private ecolabel programs. The accreditation process is key to allaying consumer misgivings," said Merrigan. Despite obstacles, the authors conclude, "customers seeking to support environmentally responsible agriculture are now able to use ecolabels as a tool to guide their purchases."

For more information, visit www.nutritiontodayonline.com.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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