June 10th, 2010

What do These Labels Even Mean?!?!?! Thoughts on Greenwashing

BOSTON -

So, I was surfing the web yesterday and I came across the most fantastic invention to date: bacon stuffed hot dogs. Oh. My. God. Yumm!

I know, I know. As a total, annoying, scold your friends for being wasteful, Greenie, my love of meat is a bit of a contradiction. We all have our vices. I have several Michael Pollan books sitting on top of my “too read” pile and the greenness of a meat vs. vegetarian diet debate will have to wait until another day. On the plus side, the 4505 hot dogs are made with all natural ingredients, uncured, and hormone & antibiotic free. So, that is sustainable and healthy right?

This got me thinking. How “natural” and healthy can you make a hotdog stuffed with bacon? What does “all natural” even mean? Is this just the completed product? Does it include all the ingredients? Is this a representation of the entire life cycle of the product from birth of the animal until it ends up in my mouth? I obviously need more hobbies.

This is a big issue, however, and there is a lot of confusion among consumers in the market place. The big labels that exist are “certified organic,” “organic”, “100% organic”, “Made with organic ingredients”, “contains organic ingredients”, “all natural”, “natural”, “free range”, “sustainably harvested”, “no drugs or growth hormones”, etc. Phew…….no wonder there is confusion. So what do all these labels mean?

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) set up the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2002, which has put regulations and third party auditing systems in place. The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to agricultural products, or rather raw, fresh products, and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients. The terms a producer is allowed to use depend on the percentage of organic ingredients in the product.

“100 percent organic”—means that only organically produced ingredients* and processing aids are used. So essentially, this is the best option. Green through and through.

“Organic”—most of what we see is either labeled ‘organic’ or ‘certified organic.’ This means that at least 95% of the ingredients* must be organic. Any remaining ingredients must be nonagricultural substances on the National List.

*excluding water and salt

For both of these it is good to know that while a producer may use the USDA Organic logo, they aren’t required to. Good fact to be aware of while shopping. Organic products must identify each organically produced ingredient in the ingredient list and they must identify their certifying agent. Organic foods must also be the product of organic farming practices, which are practices that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without using synthetic pesticides, GMO’s, petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. If it is meat that we are talking about, Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Also, any products labeled “100 percent organic” or “organic” cannot be produced using methods such as sewage sludge or ionizing radiation.

Wait, what??? Does that mean that non-organic products can be made using sewage sludge? Next time you come across someone who argues against organic, throw out that nice little tidbit. Discussion over.

“made with organic ingredients”—these products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups prominently. i.e. “soup made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots” or “soup made with organic vegetables.” Here again, no sewage and no radiation.

If a processed product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, they can’t use the term “organic”, but they can identify any organic ingredients in the ingredients section of the label. So if you have time to read every can, jar, box, and or bag in the store, have fun with that!

“Natural”—this term is only regulated by the USDA when it is applied to meat and poultry (nothing else). This term means that the foods are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or other artificial additives; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. They are required to be minimally processed, meaning that the processing method does not fundamentally change them. The labeling must also explain how the producer is using the term ‘natural.’ Using the term “natural” in line with the USDA regs, does not have anything to do with how the sources of those foods were raised. Meaning, it has nothing to do with whether the animals were fed grass or corn, organic or not, hormones or not, etc.

Why do we go to all this trouble as a country to regulate Organic and why do we as consumers care you ask? Good Question!

Well there are a lot of arguments stating that organic foods are not any healthier than non-organic. Of course the food marketing institute in their 2007 report made that statement and then immediately followed it with the research showing that children who eat organic foods are exposed to “significantly lower” levels of organophosphorus pesticides. I can’t pronounce that; it must be bad. Organics also have significantly higher levels of cancer fighting antioxidants, generally 30% more. Organically produced food also has lower levels of unsafe fungi than conventional samples, and less risk of e. coli contamination (in the case of livestock). Every year more research comes out showing us that organic farming results in better nutrition for us and better environmental practices. So that leads into why we nitpick and regulate. We want to make sure that consumers are protected and know (and receive) exactly what they are buying.

There are penalties for misusing any of the USDA labels, or using them when not certified. If a producer knowingly sells or labels any product as organic that is not produced and handled in line with the NPO’s regulations, they can be liable for a civil penalty of up to $11,000 per violation. This also applies to retailers. They are subject to regulatory requirements concerning their handling of organic products and are subject to fines of up to $10,000 per violation. So they can’t knowingly sell a non-organic product that is labeled as organic (hear that Wal-Mart? tsk tsk), allow unpackaged organic products to contact unpackaged conventional ones, or permit organic products to contact prohibited substances like fungicides, preservatives, or fumigants. This is a pretty tall order.

Again, Organic is the only regulated term. So what about the rest? “all natural”, “free range”, “sustainably harvested”……they can mean whatever the producer wants them to mean. Generally speaking, when a producer uses the term “natural” or “all natural” when not referring to meat, they are expected to follow the USDA meat guidelines discussed above. Since there are no regulations or oversight, however, it is pretty much up to the producer to define for themselves what “natural” means.

This is pretty dangerous, given that marketing studies have shown that American consumers mistakenly believe that “natural” is actually greener than “organic,” that “organic” is a fancy way of saying expensive, and that “natural” is a regulated term. “All natural” was the second-most common claim on food products available in 2008 and has increased in popularity. If we go by the USDA meat requirement of minimally processed, then all natural products will not contain any ingredients not readily available to the average cook, aka nothing requiring a high tech lab.

If we go by this definition however, some of our most loved brands would no longer be able to label themselves as “natural” including Ben & Jerry’s, Kashi, and Gorton’s. So for now we have to give ourselves an extra 30 minutes at the store to look at the ingredients list.

Obviously, the term “natural” needs to be expanded and better regulated. As does “free range” which is often used now to mean that there is access to the outdoors, not that the animals actually make it outside. Think one doggie door for 30,000 chickens type of scenario.

So how do we protect consumers from all of these possibly misleading labels? Do we have other regulations that can be applied? Wow, these questions are so insightful; it is like I am asking them myself. Yes we do!

Tune in next month for my fascinating (and non-boring) post on FCC regulations against Green Washing. 

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Jessica Manganello

About Jessica Manganello

Jessisca R. Manganello is an attorney with and founder of New Leaf Legal, LLC . She works with sustainable and emerging businesses in the Boston area on their corporate and intellectual property needs. Passions include everything green, concept cars, food, movies, heavy metal music, body art, and kitty cats. To learn more check out New Leaf Legal and follow her @mangojess .

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams

    Jessica,

    Really interesting observation. I recently read that most people think that 100% natural, is better then 100% organic. Strange! There also seems to be a lot of confusion between organic and local food in the country, we’ll see how that gets sorted out.

  • Jessica Manganello

    Hey Chris,

    There definitely is a lot of confusion. I am not sure how people started thinking that “natural” is better than “organic.” Good marketing perhaps? The local food discussion is a pretty lively one as well. Just because something is local doesn't mean it was produced in an eco-friendly or healthy way (see the produce at Hay Market every week). On the other hand, conventionally produced local food can often be more eco-friendly overall than organic foods imported from Mexico or California (presuming we are eating in Mass). Its amazing we ever get out of bed and go grocery shopping at all! :)

  • Jessica Manganello

    Hey Chris,

    There definitely is a lot of confusion. I am not sure how people started thinking that “natural” is better than “organic.” Good marketing perhaps? The local food discussion is a pretty lively one as well. Just because something is local doesn't mean it was produced in an eco-friendly or healthy way (see the produce at Hay Market every week). On the other hand, conventionally produced local food can often be more eco-friendly overall than organic foods imported from Mexico or California (presuming we are eating in Mass). Its amazing we ever get out of bed and go grocery shopping at all! :)