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How "Natural" or "Free-Range" is Your Food--Eco-Labels Demystified

>From <> March 17, 2004

Some Green-Sounding Food Labels Mean More Than Others

Today's conscientious consumer has a plethora of choices at the
supermarket: "Free-Range," "Farm-Friendly," "Organic," and that
warmest and fuzziest of warm-fuzzies, "Natural." These labels all
sound wonderful, but what do they mean? Some of them, it turns out,
mean quite a bit, while others mean almost nothing. Bewildered
shoppers can get the scoop on which labels to look for and which to
disregard -- on the Grist Magazine website.

today in Grist: Eco-labels demystified -- by Matthew L. Miller

This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Grist Magazine:
Good Label Manners

Not all "eco-labels" are created equal by Matthew L. Miller:
The Land Institute and the Prairie Writers Circle

16 Mar 2004

"W hat's in a name?" asks Shakespeare. Conscientious food consumers are
beginning to realize that the answer too often is, "Not much."

Shoppers increasingly are willing to pay more for food produced in a way
that protects human health, water, wildlife, rural communities, and farm
workers. And this is not lost on marketers. Many grocery packages today
include "eco-labels" that make attractive claims. Grocery shelves are
bulging with food labeled "Natural," "Free-Range," and "Sustainable."

But much of this labeling is just spin. "Free-Range" chicken conjures an
image of birds pecking contentedly around a farmhouse. In reality,
Department of Agriculture standards for the label stipulate only that the
chickens must have access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each

Such is today's supermarket aisle. So how does a shopper make informed

It is important to distinguish between label types. Some, such as "USDA
Organic," indicate verified compliance with exacting federal standards.
Other claims, such as "Natural" and "Hormone-Free," also have federal
standards but are not subject to verification. (Many such general claims are
currently under consideration for more defined, and enforced, standards.)

A number of eco-labels are not administered by the federal government, but
instead are governed by trustworthy independent verification boards that
should ensure the food is produced a certain way. Examples include
"Protected Harvest," "Salmon-Safe," and "Predator-Friendly."

But other labels may mean nothing close to what they suggest.

For example, the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues recently
announced the label "Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly" for dairy producers and
processors that follow its industrial, corporate agenda for food production.
The center attacks organic agriculture and applauds genetically modified
food. Its website promotes feedlots, with one story claiming that cows are
"more than happy to stand with their friends on a cement feedlot floor
(protecting the ecosystem)." Appearing next to the "Earth Friendly" label
promotion is an ad for a book titled Saving the Planet With Pesticides and
Plastic , written by the center's director, Dennis Avery.

Not exactly most people's idea of being friendly to the earth or the farm.

Clearly, making responsible choices requires reading beyond such labels,
understanding our agricultural economy, and becoming familiar with producer

Eco-labels can be researched on the web. The sponsors of reliable labels,
including "Protected Harvest" and "Salmon-Safe," are transparent in their
practices. The Consumers Union's Guide to Environmental Labels rates nearly
all of them. Dan Imhoff's excellent book Farming with the Wild includes a
section devoted to valid eco-labels and what they mean.

And there is still no substitute for actually learning about how food is
produced and becoming personally vested in our agricultural system. By
selecting locally produced food, consumers can more easily verify how their
food is produced and support their local economy. They can talk with farmers
at farmers' markets, seek out increasingly common local food guides, and
take part in farm tours.

This is more difficult than feeling good about ourselves by picking
something off the supermarket shelf simply because it proclaims purity and
goodness. But our health and that of our children, our wildlife, our soil,
and our water depend on consumers looking beyond fashionable labels that too
often are much ado about nothing.

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