Important Distinctions Between Labels and Certifications and Why They Matter

By Inho Choi
Discussions
2014, Vol. 10 No. 3 | pg. 1/2 |

When browsing the grocery aisle, consumers are bombarded with and confused by a myriad of special labels. “Organic,” “whole grain,” “all natural,” and “cage-free,” are just some of the more popular ones. Originally intended to help consumers differentiate products by communicating meaningful information about what the products contain and how they were produced, these labels now merely confuse consumers while giving retailers the opportunity to charge premiums on specially labeled items. Clearly, there is a need to educate the general public about the meanings of the various labels found on food products. Before discussing individual labels and what they mean, it is important to clarify the difference between a label and a certification.

A label is any claim made on a food product, where such a claim may or may not be regulated by a government agency. A certification, then, is a label that can only be used if the product meets certain standards set and regulated by an agency such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thus, all certifications are labels, but not all labels are certifications. The table below (Figure 1) displays a list of common labels, along with their certifications, if any, and their respective regulating bodies.

The two government agencies regulating food are the USDA and the FDA. The USDA regulates food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management. One of the more important divisions of the USDA is the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged (FSIS).

The FDA, on the other hand, oversees the safety, efficacy, and security of biological products, medical devices, human and veterinary drugs, cosmetics, products that emit radiation, and many food products. Some food products that fall under the umbrella of the FDA include dietary supplements, bottled water, food additives, infant formulas, and most other products besides meat, poultry, and eggs (About FDA). Also, in addition to these government agencies, non-profit organizations like the Non-GMO Project and the Whole Grains Council play a part in the labeling of food. These organizations set standards for labeling foods unregulated by the government, such as the “Non-GMO” and “Whole Grain” labels, respectively.

Figure 1: Labels and their respective certifications and regulating bodies.

Figure 1: Labels and their respective certifications and regulating bodies.

It should be noted that, if labels and certifications were not meant to convey meaningful information about products to consumers, the government and other organizations would not play a part in determining which products get labels. However, these labels assume a certain base level of knowledge about conventional farming methods on the part of the consumer – that is, in order to truly understand what labels are meant to convey, consumers must understand the various ways by which our food is produced. In the past, our food was produced via traditional farming methods – no pesticides, genetically modified crops and animals, etc. As displayed in Figure 2, in 1900 nearly 40% of the population were farmers, a stark contrast to today.

Today, according to demographics provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just one percent of the American population are farmers. Furthermore, the percentage of farmers that are 65 years and older has been steadily increasing, up from approximately 15% in 1969 to 25% in 2002 (Demographics). Whether the farming population declined naturally or competitive environment have driven them out is unknown. However we can definitely conclude there is an emphasis on efficiency. This efficiency has taken the form of an increased use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, the spread of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the proliferation of factory farms, all of which have known negative effects.

Figure 2: U.S. farm population and rural populations as share of population (Dimitri)

Figure 2: U.S. farm population and rural populations as share of population (Dimitri)

For example, the use of agricultural chemicals to increase short-term farm gains may not be as efficient when health and environmental effects are considered. According to research from Cornell University, pesticides incur varying financial costs, as shown in Figure 3. And, on top of this $9.6 billion per year, $10 billion is spent annually simply to purchase pesticides. The total known costs associated with pesticides, then, total nearly $20 billion every year, excluding the cost of research for new pesticide development (Pimentel).

However, the harm done by pesticides reaches beyond the monetary. Public health takes a measurable toll from pesticide use. For example, a systematic review done in 2007 found that “most studies on non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia showed positive associations with pesticide exposure,” and thus concluded that the cosmetic or non-commercial use of pesticides should be decreased (Vakil).

Strong evidence also exists for other negative outcomes from pesticide exposure, including birth defects, fetal death, and neurodevelopmental disorders (Sanborn). Other agricultural chemicals have been shown to have similar effects. For example, Parkinson’s disease has been linked with exposure to pesticides (Ascherio), and studies have suggested that repeated exposure to low levels of organophosphates may result in biochemical effects in agricultural farmworkers (Lopez), as well as enhanced risks of certain cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma.

Figure 3: Financial damage caused by pesticide use (Pimentel)

Figure 3: Financial damage caused by pesticide use (Pimentel)

GMOs – plants and animals that have been genetically modified with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals – also have various negative effects associated with them. First, most GMO crops are engineered to withstand herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. Indeed, over 80% of all GMO crops grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance. According to the nonprofit organization Non GMO Project, since the inception of GMO crops, the use of toxic herbicides like Roundup has been ubiquitously increasing the number of negative health effects that have been linked to agricultural chemicals (GMO Facts). Secondly, plants and pests have become resistant to the chemicals normally used to control them, leading to “super weeds” and “super bugs.” Professor of Purdue University Bill Johnson has discovered the externalities of using Roundup first hand. He claims that the giant ragweed, a weed that enabled the use of Roundup, can “cause up to 100 percent yield loss” (Purdue University).

Despite evidence like the increasing use of Roundup, proponents of chemical treatments claim there are no such things as “super weeds” or “super bugs.” For example in 1998 volunteer canola, a weed, was reported to be resistant to three herbicides in Alberta, Canada (Jia). The activist dubbed the canola a “super weed,” but supporters of these chemicals state that these weeds can be exterminated with 2, 4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (Jia). What the supporters fail to mention is that the chemical is toxic and used as a major ingredient in Agent Orange. The long-term effects of GMO crops remain unknown; however, producers continue to release them, even though they know full well that these novel organisms cannot be recalled (GMO Facts). In more than a third of the world’s countries, there are significant restrictions on GMO crops and even outright bans. However, in the United States the government has approved GMO crops based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them, a major conflict of interests. (GMO Facts).

Today, those genetically modified crops account for the majority of all crops grown in the U.S.: Canola is 90% GMO; corn, 88%; cotton, 90%; soy, 94%; and sugar beets at 95% (What Is GMO?). Finally, in the drive for greater and greater efficiency the spread of factory farming has led to a multitude of negative effects in the ways we produce our meat. The vast majority of beef and other meats available to consumers in supermarkets is produced using feedlots, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These production systems operate on small land areas, where animals are raised in very confined pens, sharing living space with other animals, feed, manure and urine, and dead animals. The number of animals required for an operation to be qualified as a CAFO differs by the kind of livestock, as shown in Fig. 4. The living conditions of these CAFO’s are relayed further in Figures 5 and 6.

Concentrating so many animals in such small spaces inevitably leads to the spread of disease among livestock. Cattle and other animals grown in feedlots are routinely given low-dose antibiotics and other drugs to accelerate growth and control disease. Feedlot cattle are not pastured, but are fed a corn and soy diet, which can cause diseases such as ulcers and acidosis, which are then treated with further antibiotics. As the cattle and other livestock are continuously pumped with antibiotics, the bacteria grow immune to them, requiring incrementally stronger doses and versions of the antibiotic. Externalities to constantly pumping antibiotics into livestock are slowly being revealed in threatening, new “super bacteria,” like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. MRSA is a strain of staph bacteria that causes skin and respiratory infections, regularly infecting people that handle livestock.

MRSA does not respond to antibiotics currently used to treat staph infections. Although not all staph infections are derived from resistant bacteria strains from livestock, they are a growing concern, as 20,000 Americans die of staph infections each year (Conley). MRSA is not the only worrying, new “super bacteria” either, as farmers administer a veritable cocktail of different antibiotics to their livestock to prevent bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and enterococci, from developing in their animals (Conley). Furthermore, meat is tested after it has been distributed, leading to massive product recalls as well as fatalities. Thus, the indiscriminate use of pharmaceuticals in factory farming presents us with the very real threat of diseases that are beyond our ability to treat with existing drugs.

Figure 4: Classification of CAFOs by livestock type (Fact Sheet)

Figure 4: Classification of CAFOs by livestock type (Fact Sheet)

 

Figure 5: A CAFO in Washington (Simpson)

Figure 5: A CAFO in Washington (Simpson)

Conventional farming methods are troubling not only because of their known health detriments, but also because of the unknown consequences that could result from their use. Pesticides have a grocery list of diseases related to them, while GMOs contribute to high levels of herbicide use and may have yet-to-be-realized negative health effects, and the use of antibiotics in our livestock puts us at risk for developing “super diseases.” Given all these problems, the importance of differentiating labels from one another has never been greater. To that end, the rest of this article will be dedicated to discussing the various labels at length.

Figure 6: A CAFO discharge to canal often impairing water quality (11.3.09 Discharge 11)

Figure 6: A CAFO discharge to canal often impairing water quality (11.3.09 Discharge 11)

Organic

One of the most important and prevalent labels consumers may come across is the “organic” label (Fig. 7), which is heavily regulated by the USDA. In 2000, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), a branch of the USDA, released national standards on the production and handling of products that are considered organic under the National Organic Program (NOP). These standards require that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms and handling operations that have been certified by a USDA-accredited state or private agency. In order to get certified, products must meet a slew of requirements, including bans on genetic engineering and the use of ionizing radiation, compliance with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, special labeling requirements, and requirements for testing, fees, state program approval, certification and recordkeeping, and domestic and foreign accreditation (Organic Farming).

Thus, any farming, wildcrop-harvesting, or handling operation that wants to market an agricultural product as organically-produced must adhere to these national organic standards. The standards address three main concerns: the production of crops, the production of livestock, and the handling of these products.

Figure 7: USDA “organic” label (Agricultural Marketing Service- Organic Labeling)

Figure 7: USDA “organic” label (Agricultural Marketing Service- Organic Labeling)

According to the organic crop production standards, prohibited substances are banned from the land at least three years prior to the first harvest. Additionally, the soil fertility and crop nutrients must be managed, which requires processes like crop rotations, supplementation with animal and crop waste, tillage, and cultivation practices. The seeds and stocks must be organic unless the organic variety is commercially unavailable.

Detriments to operations such as pests, weeds and diseases must first be controlled with physical, mechanical, and biological controls. Only when these practices fall short can the farmer resort to biological, botanical, or synthetic substances. In addition, questionable practices like genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and the use of sewage sludge are prohibited (Organic Farming).

Animals used for meat, milk, eggs, and other animal products must follow the organic livestock standards. According to these standards, livestock must be raised under organic management beginning the last third of pregnancy for mammalian livestock and the second day of life for poultry. The organic management mandates that livestock are fed 100% organically, milk-producing dairy are fed 80% organically for nine months followed by 100% organically for three months. Also, as the general organic requirements state, animals cannot be given hormones or antibiotics for any reason unless they are sick – at which time they can be given prohibited substances but are stripped of the organic certification. To prevent such incidents, farmers may use vaccines.

Figure 8: Various organic certifications, their requirements, and their labeling procedures (Agricultural Marketing Service – Organic Labeling)

Figure 8: Various organic certifications, their requirements, and their labeling procedures (Agricultural Marketing Service – Organic Labeling)

Another requirement established for the well-being of the animal is access to the outdoors and pasture. Animals may only be denied this right for their safety, health, and production needs or to protect the quality of soil and water (Organic Farming). As if the organic label were not already complicated enough, there are four sub-categories of organic certifications: “100% organic,” “organic,” “made with organic” and “specific organic ingredients.” The following table (Fig. 8) outlines the basic requirements for each certification and how such products may be labeled.

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