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Eco-Labels & Humane Labels on Food & Other Products--Which Ones Can You Trust?

With new products challenge for consumers to see through the hype and choose what's best for their families, especially while juggling coupons and jockeying an over-stuffed shopping cart. "Some labels are highly meaningful, while others are misleading or even deceptive," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of the Eco-Labeling Project for Consumers Union. What to do? Read with X-ray eyes: The best labels are transparent, hide nothing and have no conflict of interest. For help in seeing through some of them, here's a checklist.

Reliable Labels

USDA Certified Organic

Foods carrying this label must be produced without antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, radiation or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers."It took a long time [10 years] to develop the USDA organic label, but it is highly meaningful for foods," Rangan says, explaining that the organic standards were developed with broad public support and that the label requires certification by independent, government-accredited organizations.

The USDA-certified organic cotton label is also highly meaningful, but personal-care products bear watching, due to ongoing but thus-far unsuccessful attempts by industry to dilute the organic standards.

Local and Regional Labels

Federal truth-in-advertising laws cover origin designations, and local/regional food labels are starting to contend with imports from abroad. Many farmers' markets impose strict local-origin requirements on vendors, and a number of stores, such as Wild Oats, often have local-food displays. The California Clean label is organized by small-scale, in-state farmers (, and the Appalachian Harvest label (, 276-623-1121) is overseen by Appalachian Sustainable Development in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. The Core Values Northeast label marks apples from New York and New England grown with integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, which minimize the use of synthetic pesticides. Managed by the IPM Institute of North America (, 608-232-1528).

Protected Harvest is a new label for IPM-grown foods. Healthy Grown Potatoes from Wisconsin currently bear this label (

Bird Friendly. This coffee and chocolate label, overseen by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (, 202-673-4908) and verified by organic inspectors, ensures that growing techniques preserve ample shade cover and provide sufficient habitats for avifauna.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled. This relatively new program sets verifiable standards of treatment for livestock that go above and beyond current laws, including prohibiting growth hormones and non-therapeutic antibiotics, giving animals space to exercise in and requiring stricter environmental controls. Overseen by Humane Farm Animal Care (, 703-435-3883).

Grass-Fed. Cows and sheep fed their traditional diet lower impact on the environment than those raised on grains in industrial feedlots. Grass-fed meat is lower in overall and saturated fat and has more omega-3 fats and vitamin E. The term "grass fed" itself, however, isn't well regulated, and such a label doesn't necessarily mean cows spent their whole lives eating the stuff. Some companies have advertised their beef as "grass-fed" even though the fine print adds "grain-finished for flavor," which can mean months in feedlots. See the Meat Product Report at for reliable companies.

Green Seal. This venerable nonprofit provides independent certification based on its high eco-standards for a wide range of products, including paper, paints, adhesives, household and industrial cleaners, windows, heating and cooling units and hotels (, 202-872-6400).

Forest Stewardship Council. This international accreditor has developed standards for certifying wood products harvested from well-managed forests (, 877-372-5646). Its certifiers include Rainforest Alliance ( and Scientific Certification Systems (

Fair Trade, administered in this country by the nonprofit group TransFair USA, ensures that a minimum price or living wage has been paid to farmers and laborers. Coffee, tea, chocolate, mangoes, bananas and pineapples so far bear this expanding mark, which is rated "highly meaningful" by CU. At the same time, some businesses, perhaps desiring to cash in on TransFair's success, have begun selling products marked "fairly traded" or something similar. Such labels may or may not be backed by independent certifiers, and must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Whole Foods, for instance, eschews TransFair in lieu of using its own system to vet its products.

Less Meaningful Labels

Free Range. These words are exclusively regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for poultry (and not eggs), and require only that chickens be given access to the outdoors for "an undetermined period each day," according to USDA standards.

Natural. There is no government regulation for this term except regarding fresh meat and poultry products, on which the "natural" label, administered by the USDA, is considered neither meaningful nor verifiable by CU.

Hypoallergenic. This term has no official definition or independent certifying agency.

Antibacterial. This term is regulated but has different meanings depending on the class of products. The American Medical Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against home use of antibacterial soaps, which may lead to bacteria resistance and don't clean any better than ordinary soap. (For info, see, 703-308-0127; or, 888-INFO-FDA.)

Cruelty Free. This term has no official definition or independent certifying agency.

Non-toxic. This term has no official definition or independent certifying agency.

Fair Labor/ Sweatshop-Free: There is not yet a fully transparent label for apparel made under standards of fair labor conditions and pay. Sweatshop Watch ( and Co-op America ( urge shoppers to buy Fair Trade certified foods and to look for union-made clothing labels; the latter provide lists of approved companies (; the Fair Labor Association lists companies that comply with its code of conduct (

Country of Origin

Consumer advocates have been pressing for this label as a means by which shoppers can avoid foods that may be tainted by lax environmental laws in other nations with antibiotics. Starting September 30, 2004, fish and seafood sold in the U.S. were ostensibly required to have a label identifying the country of origin-but the rule will not be enforced for a year. Jerry Redding, a USDA spokesperson, says that Congress has passed a two-year moratorium for other foods. And the House of Representatives is considering an amendment that would make the labeling program voluntary