Eco-Labels: What’s in a Name?

Free-range chicken, or just an illusion? (Matt Miller photo)Free-range chicken, or just an illusion?

“What’s in a name?” asks Shakespeare. Conscientious food consumers are beginning to realize that the answer too often is: Not much.

Like many consumers, I’m willing to pay a bit more for food that benefits wildlife habitat, clean water and rural communities. This trend, of course, is not lost on marketers. Visit any grocery store, and you can find more “eco-labels” making attractive claims: “Natural.” “Free-range.” “Sustainable.”

But, all too often, labels are more spin than reality. “Free-range” chicken conjures an image of birds pecking contentedly around the farmhouse. In reality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for the label stipulate only that chickens must have access to the outdoor for an “undetermined period each day.”

“Sustainable”? It’s really up to the farmer to decide that definition. “All natural”? Your guess is as good as mine.

At least one eco-label defines large-scale, industrial dairy cattle feedlots as “earth friendly” — probably not what most milk purchasers think when they pick up a gallon at the supermarket.

Such is today’s supermarket aisle. So is it impossible to eat “green”?

Not at all, but it may take a little time if you really want to make a difference. Web resources can help. Consumer Reports Greener Choices Eco-Label Center rate eco-labels and their claims. Some labels have federal standards, such as “Certified Organic.” Others such as “Predator Friendly” and “Salmon Safe” have excellent review standards.

But 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, buy food from local urban gardens or community supported agriculture projects and take part in farm tours.

This is certainly more difficult than feeling good about ourselves by picking something off the supermarket shelf simply because it proclaims purity and goodness. But, hopefully, eating green is not just about being trendy.

To make the food choices that make the most difference for conservation, it’s best to look beyond fashionable labels that too often are much ado about nothing.

(Photo credit: Matt Miller/TNC)

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