Is Label Fatigue Diluting the Meaning of Certified Organic?

Is Label Fatigue Diluting the Meaning of Certified Organic?
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It used to be that when it came to buying sustainable, ethical food, there was one label to trust: the certified organic label. But now, food packaging is wallpapered with dozens of certifications, telling us our food is pastured, vegetarian-fed, pesticide-free, non-GMO, grass-fed… and while we’re all for transparency, label fatigue has taken hold. One recent study even found that consumers can’t tell the difference between non-GMO and certified organic.

The study, performed by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, found that people were willing to pay more for granola bars labeled non-GMO than organic – despite the fact that the certified organic label means, by default, that the food contains no GMO ingredients.

Lexology reports that the findings of this study coincide with a recent doubling in sales of Non-GMO Project certified foods – from $7 billion in 2014 to $16 billion in 2016 – whereas sales of foods bearing the organic label, while still higher than ever before, have increased much more slowly. This points to a dilution of the organic label, as consumers lean towards certifications that clearly indicate one characteristic of a product, such as an absence of GMOs, without exploring is other characteristics, such as the presence of fungicides or the farmer’s attitude towards soil health.

To add insult to injury, there are often numerous certifications on the marketplace attesting to the same thing, such as the dozen some-odd animal welfare labels ranging from the gold standard of the Animal Welfare Approved label to the United Egg Producer humane label, which, according to Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group, is essentially meaningless.

“I think it might be the totality of their standards are you have to give them feed and fresh water,” he says. “In other words, if you weren’t giving them feed and water, you’d have dead chickens, and you wouldn’t have anything to certify in the way of eggs.”

Between these two extremes, Kastel notes, exist a number of labels that are often “pretty flimsy” but that nonetheless create a lot of noise on store shelves and food packaging sporting a jumble of labels attesting to animal welfare, worker rights, pesticide use, and GMO use. The result is dizzying for consumers and, notes Brandon McFadden, lead author of the recent study, decreases the marginal value of each additional label.

Despite this label fatigue, however, there is increasing talk of adding even more labels to the mix. The good news? These labels may actually be worth your while.

Certifying Transition to the Organic Label

When farmers decide to convert to organic, the process requires that they use organic methods for a period of three years before being able to use the organic label. In other words, the farmer has the added expense of following organic practices – feeding animals organic feed, using organic herbicides – without being able to charge the premium on their products the organic label would afford.

The Organic Trade Association has responded to this problem by developing a certified transitional label that would allow farmers who are transitioning towards the full organic label to show consumers that they are committed to organic.

“I certainly don’t see it as a silver bullet,” says Nate Lewis, Organic Trade Association Farm Policy Director, of the label. “But I think that for folks that really just can’t get over the financial hurdle, having the ability to get some kind of premium in that interim time could make a real difference.”

While the label is currently stalled at USDA, QIA has developed another certified transitional label that is being used notably by Kashi.

“The majority of the standards are identical,” says Lewis, noting that both certifications require that farmers be a year out from their last prohibited substance application, for example.

“Where the two programs differ is on composition requirements for finished products,” says Lewis, noting that while QIA’s standard calls for a minimum of 51 percent transitional ingredients in order to call a product transitional, “Our standard nears the organic composition requirements, which is 70 percent minimum for a made-with claim, and then 95 percent for organic claim.”

While Lewis expresses worry over label fatigue, he doesn’t believe that these transitional labels contribute to the problem.

“There’s definitely a lot of concern about shelf space, and we want to make sure organics is the product that’s getting it,” he says. “Our program’s really focused on trying to get producers onboard and develop a mechanism that can help purchasers or buyers of ingredients to work towards transitional farms.”

Buying certified transitional products is a way of supporting the organic label and farmers who strive to achieve this USDA-certified standard.

More than Organic: Certified Regenerative

Another new label that’s getting quite a bit of press of late is Rodale Institute’s Regenerative Organic, draft standards for which were unveiled in September. The new certification, developed in partnership with a coalition of farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, scientists, and brands, has a goal of going above and beyond the organic label, notably when it comes to soil health, worker rights, and animal welfare standards.

“People are trying to disconnect the word organic from the word regenerative,” says Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute Farm Director, noting that many people in the industry focus on one simple metric, such as carbon sequestering or pesticide use, and say that as long as a farmer is fulfilling the needs of that metric, he or she is farming in a regenerative way. McFadden even notes that for many consumers, the organic label is synonymous only with reduced pesticide use, a mere fraction of what the standards actually entail.

Of course, the blame for this misinterpretation cannot be placed entirely on the shoulders of the consumer. There is certainly a dilution of the USDA organic label today, due in part to the way the organic standards were originally written.

“There’s nothing in the standard about worker protection,” says Moyer. “It’s also fairly quiet on animal welfare. You could have dairy cows tied to a pipe, and you could, in theory, walk through the farm and bash each cow on its head with a pipe wrench every day, and while it may not be approved by anybody or thought to be nice, there’s nothing in the standard that says that you can’t do that.”

This dilution, and the resulting preponderance of labels in the marketplace, is also “a symptom of the organic label not living up to its value proposition,” according to Kastel. Regulations regarding soil health, for example, do exist within the organic standard but are often ignored, as demonstrated by the recent decision to allow hydroponic operations to be certified organic despite them being soilless and therefore being unable to contribute to soil health, or by the revelation this summer that the largest organic dairy was neglecting to graze its cattle according to organic regulations.

It’s no wonder that those who truly care about the meaning behind organic want a label that coincides with their beliefs, and Regenerative Organic may be it.

“I don’t think it’s going to replace organic, that’s not our goal,” says Moyer. The certification will instead build upon the existing organic label, as well as the myriad of other meaningful certifications that are already on the marketplace.

“It’s an organic plus approach,” says Lewis of the new label. “It gives farmers recognition when they exceed organic standards.”

In building this new standard, the Rodale Institute sifted through existing worker fairness, animal welfare, and other sustainability certifications out there, uniting the best of them under one label. The Institute’s major contribution: standards relating to soil health, a cornerstone of what the Rodale Institute believes organic standards should – and do not currently – encapsulate.

“JR Rodale said, in order to have healthy people, you have to have healthy food, and the only way to have healthy food is to have healthy soil,” explains Moyer.

The standard also rewards farmers who continue to improve once they have acquired the current organic label which, Moyer notes, “isn’t dynamic; it doesn’t reward you for moving forward or continuous improvement.”

“In our standard,” he says, “Continuous improvement is mandatory.”

Because this standard builds upon the existing organic label, Moyer hopes that it will not contribute to increased label fatigue.

“I’m certain that there will be some initial confusion in the marketplace at first about what’s happening, and why it’s happening,” he says, “But we think it’s really important to contribute to these other metric readings about what regenerative really means.”

Are More Labels the Right Answer?

While reinforcing organic with labels such as Certified Transitional and Regenerative Organic certainly seems like a good solution, no label can replace common sense.

“I think the responsibility lies first with a person,” says McFadden, noting that while he agrees with the widespread sentiment that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, “The issue is, do we say that to kind of slap a Band-Aid over a bigger problem?”

“The information is out there if somebody wanted to look,” explains McFadden. “But very few people actively seek out information; we all mostly passively receive information – this is especially true because of social media now.”

According to Kastel, the organic label “should be your Cliff’s Notes version of doing your ethical food research, [but] unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of your research.”

It’s important for conscious consumers to use labels like certified organic, transitional, and regenerative as guideposts for further research: using additional tools like the Cornucopia Institute’s scorecards, which rate different brands on their attentiveness to a variety of environmental and humane issues, or contact with individual farmers is essential to ensuring that the brands we support and the foods we buy actually adhere to the standards that matter.

Related on Organic Authority
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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.