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Explaining the Labels: Labels You Can Trust

February 27th, 2015
Center for Food Safety

Labels with health or environmental claims are everywhere in the grocery store these days, and it can be overwhelming to decipher what these labels really mean. Check out the first installment, Misleading Labels, to learn about labels that aren’t always what they claim. This week we’re focusing on labels that you can trust; here’s a list of some of the best verified labels in the grocery store.

Animal Welfare Approved
The AWA label means that animals raised for meat, dairy, and eggs are treated humanely from birth to slaughter on a family farm. The AWA label is based on comprehensive standards that require humane living conditions, treatment, and outdoor access. It prohibits routine antibiotic use, animal waste products in the animals’ feed, and artificial growth hormones; it is also the only animal welfare program that prohibits physical alterations such as beak trimming.[1]

Certified Humane
The Certified Humane label means that farms raising animals for meat, eggs, or dairy meet standards that aim to improve humane living conditions and treatment from birth to slaughter. Certified Humane standards require prudent antibiotic use and prohibit artificial growth hormones and animal by-products in animal feed. There are also minimum space requirements and provisions for indoor housing conditions.

Demeter Biodynamic
Foods with the Demeter Biodynamic label come from farms that were managed in a holistic, ecologically sustainable way. A farm must meet all the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program in addition to the more rigorous Demeter standards to be certified. Animals must be treated humanely, and there are standards ensuring that the animals are raised outdoors and are able to engage in natural behaviors.[2]

Fair Trade
Fair Trade is a global trade model for farmers and workers in developing countries. Fair Trade USA certifies many different products in the United States. Fair Trade principles include sustainable wages, safe working conditions, and community development for the workers. Harmful chemicals and GMOs are strictly prohibited in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods.[3]

Non-GMO Project Verified
The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that offers third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. The label means that the product has been produced without the intentional use of genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs) and that procedures, including ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients, were put in place to prevent contamination with GMOs. The Project does have a GMO threshold of 0.9%, which means that products can still have a small amount of GMOs and be verified. This threshold is in alignment with laws in the European Union, where any product with more than 0.9% GMOs must be labeled.[4]

USDA Certified Organic
The USDA Organic Seal is backed by federal regulations which encourage sustainable farming practices and restrict the use of synthetic substances in farming and processing. The use of genetically engineered seeds (GMOs), synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and sewage sludge in organic food production are prohibited. The Seal also means that organic meat and dairy products are from animals fed organic, vegetarian feed, are provided access to the outdoors, and not treated with hormones or antibiotics.

Certified Organic products have a few different labels to look for:

At the farmers market or farm stand, look for the official certified organic certificate required by law to be prominently posted.

At the grocery store, look for an overhead sign or bin that says organic. Individual fruits and vegetables must be individually marked with an organic sticker or imprint.

For processed foods, look for the USDA organic seal on the front of the package which guarantees that 95-100 percent of the ingredients in the product is organic. Only 5 percent of the ingredients, at most, can come from the USDA’s list of approved nonorganic ingredients. The name of the certifying agent must be listed on the package.

A product labeled made with organic ingredients can contain up to 30 percent non-organic ingredients that are on the USDA’s list of approved non-organic ingredients. Each organic ingredient must be listed on the ingredient label. “Made with organic” products do not display the USDA organic seal or any certifying agent seal or logo.

* NOTE: All non-organic ingredients used in certified organic products and those labeled made with organic ingredients must come from the USDA’s National List of approved substances for use in organic. Such ingredients cannot be produced using excluded methods such as genetic engineering, cloning, nanotechnology, and irradiation, and they cannot harm human health or the environment.

For more information on these and other labels, visit the Consumer Reports Greener Choices website. For more information on Organic products, visit our website.

Check out the first installment about Misleading Labels here.