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Labels: Finding Your Value Between the Lines


On July 29th, 2016, a bill was signed into federal law to require that foods must be labeled when they contain genetically modified ingredients. It should have been a day for celebration, when the light of knowledge finally shined on the hidden secret of whether nature or humans devised the strands of DNA that make up our breakfast cereal. Yet, rather than creating a feeling of victory for those invested in knowing what their food contains, many pro-labeling groups felt disappointed. Instead of creating a pathway to clarity about where our food comes from, many would argue that the waters have only been further muddied. 

The debate over GMO labeling exemplifies the struggling between food companies, consumer advocacy groups and government regulators over how food can be produced and marketed. While the claims we see on our on our food labels might often seem reassuringly simple, they mask a complex and nuanced web of questions surrounding what we eat. 

Government regulation over the safety and quality of what we find on the grocery store shelf is only one aspect of how marketing terms influence how we buy our food. Marketing terms we look for every day can impact the world around us, touching our environment, our local economy and the livelihood of people on the other side of the planet. The challenge to be truly responsible consumers often requires more than just seeking out the food labels we believe represent our values; it also requires a clear understanding of what those labels mean.

The Purpose of Labeling

Food labels are used to market products to consumers, even those that are required by government regulations. The use of labels such as non-GMO, cage free, or even local are intended to communicate to customers and appeal to them in some way. This may seem surprising when we compare labels such as the nutritional panel on a product’s packaging to the USDA Organic sticker. 

The nutritional panel is required to comply with regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In a similar way, foods claiming to be organic must meet certain criteria as required by the US Department of Agriculture. However, while the nutritional panel is required for many food products, adherence to the standards of organic practices as described by the USDA is only necessary for those who wish to distinguish their brand by the “organic” label. The organic label may be a brand which many shoppers put great faith in, but it is important to realize that is not the ultimate determinant of whether our food is good for our environment or us. 

Many small producers may adhere to growing practices which ensure environmental stewardship, absence of chemical or pesticide residue and other qualities which either meet or exceed the government standards for organics, but choose to forgo pursuit of USDA certification. This certification requires a commitment to costly in-depth record-keeping, independent verification, strict separations between organic and nonorganic products, and several years of demonstrating adherence to organic standards prior to ever slapping the label on their product. Producers must weigh these considerations against the potential benefits they could receive through the blessing of the organic label. It may be that their products are of excellent quality but the path to certification is simply too troublesome to be worthwhile. On the other hand, the power of the organic label to attract customers attracts large producers to pursue certification. 

While these big operations may meet the minimum standards necessary to achieve certification, this is no guarantee that their farming practices have greater environmental integrity than farms that forgo the certification process.

This dichotomy expresses both the central value and the central difficulty that many food labels hold. By utilizing a voluntary label on their product, food producers are communicating that their product is somehow superior to similar products lacking this mark of distinction. Many times, this can be of great benefit to consumers: the label indicates that the food they are buying aligns with the values they hold regarding the origin of that product. 

Such concerns may focus on one or many questions about where food comes from, be it the economic and moral questions of who grew it and how they were compensated, where it was grown and how far did it travel to get to my table, or how it was grown. What will be the consequences on the environment as a result of my purchase? How will this impact the health and well-being of my children should I feed it to them? These questions are difficult to grapple with and the use of well-known labeling terms often works to cut through these concerns by assuring consumers that their product choice is one they can make in good conscience. However, this same sharp blade, which provides clarity or peace of mind, carries a double edge, which can create confusion or even a false sense of certainty about how our shopping habits can impact the world. The symbolic power which a food label carries is granted by the level of trust which we place in it. Therefore, our belief in a label should not be a matter of blind faith, but rather the result of an endeavor to investigate what food labels actually indicate versus what those selling the food might want us to believe. 


A great example of using a marketing buzzword to attract customers to a product through an appeal to their values is the ever-common “Local” label. Purchasing foods that are grown, produced or processed locally can help to enrich or sustain communities and economies at the county, state or regional level. By buying food or other products that are truly local, you help to ensure that the money you spend continues to circulate near your home, rather than leaving for a faraway state or foreign country. 

Many consumers also seek out local products because they have a preference for food less traveled, believing it to be of higher quality and freshness and a lower carbon footprint. In cases where local suppliers can transport their bounty quickly and efficiently from their farm into your grocery basket over a shorter distance, fewer emissions from refrigerants or fuel combustion may result. Additionally, food that spent less time off the vine or out of the ground can carry greater nutritional content and premium flavor. This means that buying local can be good for you, good for your community and sometimes even good for your environment.

Because producers and retailers know the value many shoppers place on the local brand, you may not be surprised to see businesses of all shapes and sizes advertising with signs such as “Eat Local” or “Buy Local.” Such ads should not be taken at face value. Many retailers utilize signage such as “Local Favorites” to tap customer interest in the “local” brand. Often times, these products may be produced in distant locales; and “Local Favorite” may mean no more that that area customers enjoy this product. In cases like this, watch out! If you want to be sure that your grocery dollars are going back into the community or region, be sure to check for stickers, labels or signs denoting where your apple or peach originated, or take the time to ask the vendor. 

An additional difficulty for true locavores is that there is no universal definition of what qualifies as local. Different organizations or vendors might define local as anywhere between 25 up to 300 miles. For consumers located at the center of their state, local might indicate that the product came from within state borders. Here at Willy Street Co-op we define Local to indicate that the product you are purchasing was either sourced from within the state of Wisconsin or within 150 miles of the state Capitol building. You can easily identify these local products by seeking out the purple product tags in our stores. As we carry a number of products that contain ingredients from various whereabouts, we also provide additional information to let you, our Owners, know what we mean when we say local. The breakdown is as follows:

•Products marked “100% Local” contain only ingredients that were sourced within the local area. These products were also baked, cooked, mixed or otherwise prepared locally as well.

•Products marked “Essentially Local” contain ingredients at least half of which were sourced from within the state or a 150 mile radius of the state Capitol.

•“Locally prepared” marked products are those, which do not contain the requisite ingredients to meet the standard of “essentially local,” but have been prepared locally.

By providing this detailed labeling system for our products, Co-op Owners may shop with confidence, safe in the knowledge of what that purple sign indicates. In addition to shopping the Co-op, locavores might also benefit from patronizing area farmer’s markets, where they are likely to encounter the very vendors who grew or prepared many of the Co-op’s local offerings. Farmers’ markets provide direct access to growers and other producers that might have come from no farther than an adjoining county. Having such access to those who knew your food from its very start can give incredible insight into how food was grown or produced, whose pocket your dollars will end up in, and even what local suppliers these producers support through their business. 

Free Range and Other “Humanely Raised” Labels

While local suppliers can often provide a higher level of transparency about what practices went into producing our favorite foods, a lack of access to far-flung suppliers can mean that we are in dark about conditions at the source. Large, distant suppliers use a number of terms to communicate a value that their product carries, but many of these terms may prove misleading, and may not be subject to regulation by government bodies or the retailer from which you make your purchase. A prime example of such a term is the commonly encountered moniker “free range.” 

The terms “free range” or “cage-free” are often applied to food labels as a sort of catch all to indicate that your eggs or poultry come from animals who enjoyed rich lives with humane treatment in the course of becoming your breakfast. However, if you are one of the many consumers for whom animal welfare is a concern, then you will need to dive beneath the surface of these suppositions. For example, while the term “cage-free” does indicate that the birds who laid your eggs were free to walk, nest and engage in other behaviors without the hindrance of a cage, it does not imply that these layers had access to the outdoors or were spared from beak cutting and other less-than-benign practices. Labels such as “free-range/free-roaming,” “pasture-raised,” and “certified organic” indicate that the birds in question were allowed freedom of movement and at least some access to the fresh air and sunlight of the outdoors. 

Certain labels such as “natural,” “farm fresh” “vegetarian-fed” or “pasteurized” may have more or less meaning when it comes to specific customer concerns, but have little relevance to animal welfare. For those most discerning of egg buyers, there are several certification programs that set specific standards for what kind of life birds must lead for their eggs to achieve the stamp of approval. These certifications include “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane,” “American Humane Certified,” “Food Alliance Certified,” and “United Egg Producers Certified.”

Poultry and eggs are not the only products that involve considerations of animal welfare. Similar to “free range” birds, large animals including goats, sheep, bison and bovines all enjoy the freedom to stretch their legs in wide-open spaces. Access to pasture and grass ensures happier and healthier steers and dairy cows. Looking for “grass-fed” on your animal products ensures that they come from ruminants that enjoyed superior welfare standards. While the USDA does hold a standard for “grass-fed” marketing claims, this standard is voluntary and adherence to regulations is not verified. However, you can depend on private, independent certifications such as the “American Grassfed Association Certification” to ensure that your milk or your burger came from a cow that enjoyed pasture free of confinement, antibiotics, or synthetic hormones. 

Fair Trade

While many consumers may be concerned with the humane treatment of the animals that compose their dinner, other grocery shoppers might want to consider the well-being of the humans who produced the meal. Many of the products we take for granted in our every day from coffee to chocolate to bananas are produced in distant nations whose climates are better suited to growing these products. 

To bridge the gap between the farms where products are grown and the American consumers who will enjoy them requires substantial resources and infrastructure, and the ability to manage the logistical monster of transporting food thousands of miles across land and sea. As a banana grower cannot sell his or her goods directly to a banana eater in Wisconsin, he must negotiate with businesses capable of carrying to market the product of his or her sweat. This puts the small farm owner or farm laborers growing these foods at a considerable disadvantage compared to a supplier who can sell the food she has grown directly to the family who will be eating it. As a result, the farmers who grow such products have traditionally been at the mercy of the international distributors when it comes to the wages they receive. The “fair trade” movement arose to address this very problem, creating opportunities for small producers to receive fair compensation while promoting more sustainable growing practices across the planet. 

Just as a standard for “organic” was long debated before the American government instituted regulations for organic marketing, standards for “fair trade” are a matter of opinion. With no international regulatory body to institutionalize requisites for what constitutes fair trade, various private, independent organizations including Fair Trade USA, the Fair Trade Federation, and the Fair World Project act as certifying bodies for these products. 

These organizations differ both in the symbols and labels they apply to certified products as well as the standards they require to achieve certification. In fact, some “fair trade” organizations see other certifying bodies as diluting the standard of what constitutes “fair trade.” Standards of inferior rigor allow large, international food companies to more easily benefit from the “fair trade” brand at the expense of farmers. This creates the need for consumers to get to know their fair trade certification organizations, what they stand for and what they demand. Still, despite the contention of what should truly be “fair trade,” the movement has provided customers access to products and brands that are less exploitive of farmers and the environment. Willy Street is proud to carry fair trade brands like Just Coffee and Equal Exchange, whose products you can find scattered through our coffee, tea, and chocolate aisles and our Produce section as well. 

While “fair trade” as well as “organic,” “local” and “free range” are commonly found labels used to communicate value to the consumer, there are a plethora of other food labels and certifying organizations committed to ensuring your food meets quality, safety or ethical standards. For example, if you are concerned about the impacts of farming practices on rainforest depletion, you could look for the “Rainforest Alliance” label on foods grown in areas with sensitive ecosystems. For the pescetarian who fears for the state of our oceans, it may be well worth seeking out information on the Marine Stewardship Council. Whatever your cause, be it the future of our ecosystems or the health of your family, seeking out knowledge about food labels and marketing can grow your positive impact through what you choose to purchase. It might even mean better eating as well. 


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