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What’s in a Label?

“I eat local!”
“I don’t eat GMOs.”
“I only buy USDA organic!”
“I eat exclusively certified humane, grass fed, free range, no-spray, fresh and seasonal.”

I hear this stuff a lot. It’s great that people are thinking about their food, it’s just that all these labels can be misleading at best, and plain old criminal at worst. For example, did you know that meat from factory confinement farms (yes, the ones with the horrible conditions for animals) can be labeled USDA Organic? (Source: §205.239(b) and (c))

As we plan our farm venture we’re going to have to pick a path to follow regarding organic certification, and of course, it’s a tangled web of bureaucracy and paperwork. But the research has taught me a lot about the food that I buy and how easy it is for producers to misrepresent their food with labels. On the flip side, if you’re dogmatic about labels you’re going to miss out on a lot of great food because small farmers can’t or won’t jump through the hoops of the food police. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:

4colorsealJPGUSDA Organic: The big one, you probably recognize it. Has a lot of good intentions, but a lot of loopholes. Given the choice of two products equal in every way but one labeled USDA Organic I’d buy it the organic one every time, but I don’t treat this designation as gospel because it’s difficult and expensive for small farmers to be USDA certified. I’d rather buy from a local producer that doesn’t abide by the letter of the organic law than a big monoculture farm that’s figured out how to evade the regulations.

cngCertified Naturally Grown: This is from a third-party, non-government organization, and the onus of policing is on the customer and other farmers. Its’ code is based on the USDA Organic regulations, but calls for a specific minimum number of days on pasture, while the USDA’s is full of loopholes. CNG certification is tailored for the small farmer that can’t afford USDA certification but still raises plants and animals responsibly: “To be granted the CNG certification, farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

I treat CNG products as equal or better to USDA Organic products, simply because I’d rather buy from the little guys and take them at their word.

awaAnimal Welfare Approved: The “gold standard” for meat and animal products according to their website, AWA is a great option if you can find their food at a reasonable price. Their slaughter standard is particularly stringent, as well as their free range requirement, but the big difference here is enforcement. While CNG is community-policed, AWA conducts regular audits.

nongmoNon-GMO Project Verified: This is a somewhat creative workaround to the “Label GMOs!” campaigns that have failed in the past few years, but again it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just because something doesn’t contain GMOs it doesn’t mean that the product is healthy or good. In fact, I just ate far too many GMO-free potato chips and now I’m feeling a little nauseous.

A somewhat obvious question is: why should the responsibility of labeling be on the producers that don’t include GMOs, rather than those that do? Should we accept food with GMOs as the norm? In this case, telling me what isn’t in a product is counter-productive.

I could go on all day, but you get the point. There are a lot of labels being thrown around in this arena and its tough to know who to trust. But! (There’s always a “but”) The answer is simple and easy: see for yourself. Buy directly from the farm or go to a market and talk to your farmer. Look her in the eye and ask the questions that matter to you. I think you’ll learn a lot, and find some really tasty, nutritious food.

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