Organic and Beyond: A Label Guide for Conscientious Food Shoppers

Mar 15, 2008

Organic food sales are increasing annually by nearly 20 percent. As consumers become more conscientious of their food purchases, they may also find themselves more confused by the information on their food labels.

“Fair trade,” “no GMOs,” and “no rBST?” Just what do these and other labels mean? National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), a business services cooperative for 109 natural food Co-ops nationwide, offers shoppers a quick-look guide of food labels and claims.

“Consumers are increasingly concerned about the foods they eat and, as they learn more about the origins of their food, are becoming more deliberate about their food choices,” said Robynn Shrader, CEO of NCGA. “In our changing food landscape, knowing how to actually buy the products they’re seeking often comes down to understanding the particulars of food labeling, especially with many new label designations entering the market.”

USDA Organic Seal: A standard in the grocery industry, this green and white seal is heavily regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. A product sporting this label must be at least 95 percent organic.

Fair Trade Labeling: If a product is labeled as Fair Trade, typically it indicates the manufacturer adheres to standards ensuring fair wages and labor conditions, supporting democratic organizations, promoting community development, and practicing environmental sustainability.

Sustainable Agricultural Labels: There are many types of sustainable agricultural labels endorsed by organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Food Alliance. The labels indicate that a company is operating within an endorsing-organization’s environmental and social sustainability guidelines.

No-GMO/No-GE labels: Based on FDA guidelines, producers can choose to label their products “No GMO” if no genetically modified organisms were used in the production of the product. There is no requirement to label products that include the use of GMOs in the United States.

No-rBST Labels: Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) is a synthetic hormone given to cows to increase milk production. Currently, it is not mandatory to indicate when dairy products are produced from farm animals injected with rbST. Since many consumers are concerned with the use of rbST, many producers have opted to include labeling indicating “no rbST” or “from cows not treated with rbST.”

Cloning: There is no standardized and regulated cloning label currently available. However, many producers include “not produced from a cloned animal” on packaging. If concerned about cloned food sources, purchasing organics is a good option, as the organic community typically does not support the use of cloned animals.

Country-of-Origin-Label (COOL): The COOL label has been in production since 2002, and would require country-of-origin information for meats, perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts. COOL is scheduled to be implemented and regulated by the USDA in September 2008; however, in the meantime, some producers voluntarily provide country of origin information

Radura Symbol: The Radura Symbol, an international label, indicates that part or the entire product has been treated with radiation to kill bacteria. The label states “treated with radiation.” Products with small amounts of radiated ingredients are not obligated to use the Radura label.