Now that green's the new black, everyone's clamouring to make their products look oh so earthy. Navigating the maze of labels on store shelves can take a degree in green jargon, so here's a little help decoding them.
100 PER CENT CERTIFIED ORGANIC
Pure as snow.
This guarantees an ingredient or an entire product is indeed organic, meaning, among other things, it's pesticide-, GMO-, drug- and chem-free (and no human sewage sludge was spread on fields). It doesn't tell you anything about working conditions on farms, although European certifiers are better on this front.
If it's not certified, there ain't no guarantee that what you're buying was actually grown in line with stringent organic standards. Non-certified organic products are pretty scarce these days unless you're at a farmers market or something like that, where you'll need to rely on your own bullshit detector.
Hooray! Canada has finally gotten its shit together and developed a regulated national system for certifying organic foods. You should start seeing this label in stores soon. Too bad the standard won't apply to personal care or garden products.
The Yankee organic symbol tells you the product is upwards of 95 per cent certified organic. (The other 5 per cent can be non-organic. Small quantities of synthetic inputs are allowed by most certifiers.) Controversy still swirls around certifiers letting dairy cow confinement slide to meet growing demand for organic milk. The USDA has recently pissed off Third World organic farmers by making it tougher and more expensive to get certified, sparking fears that they could move away from the practice.
MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS
On American products this means "made with anywhere from 70 to 94 per cent organic content." Can't use USDA organic seal.
This one's abused beyond recognition, but the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) still insists the term is regulated and can't be used if any earthly ingredient has been altered, even with non-synthetic ingredients. There's clearly no brigade of cops enforcing this one, but feel free to call the CFIA with complaints.
Viewed by many as the Holy Grail of holistic farming, it's a little New Agey (think crystal tinctures, planting in strict rhythm with the planets and away from electromagnetic fields), but that should keep Big Food from moving in. Look for products that are certified biodynamic.
The only way to be sure your coffee, vase and scarf from developing countries weren't made in sweatshops or by exploiting farmers is to look for certified fair trade. Certifiers say environmental impacts are considered, but to be sure, look for certified organic and fair trade. Of course, many poor developing-world farmers just can't afford to pay for all this pricey certification and don't think it's all that fair.
GE-FREE (or GMO-FREE)
Blame the feds for failing to support mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. Still, the CFIA says meat with this label has to be approved by them.
Meat and eggs
Indicates the chickens had access to the outdoors, but how much access? The U.S. regulates use of the term as it relates to chickens but not to eggs, and doesn't stipulate how much outdoor time is required. Canada regulates neither.
FREE RUN (OR CAGE-FREE)
Picture open-concept barns but no fresh air for these guys. No policing of the term either.
Sure, this stuff might be better for you, but it tells you zilch about how the poor birds were treated or whether they were shot up with antibiotics.
Cows that munch on grass instead of grains are much happier and have less toxic E. coli in their bowels (translation: you're much less likely to ingest E. coli-contaminated grass-fed meat). There's no standard in place to monitor this one. Too bad.
At the Big Carrot, this label means the meat was raised without drugs and, though the feed isn't organic, it's GMO-and animal-by-product-free. If you see the label anywhere else, CFIA says it tells you it's pharma-free.
Some charge an arm and a leg for a hormone-free chicken breast, but the feds say no chickens can be fed hormones in this country, so why pay more for chicken with this designation? Cows, on the other hand, can be fed hormones, but the CFIA says all animals have to test clean for drugs before they can be slaughtered. If a product is registered with the feds, the label is checked for accuracy before it goes on shelves. If it's provincially registered, it's open to spot or complaint-driven inspections.
Nice to know your meat wasn't grazing on his dead relatives before he met the chop, but chickadee could have been fed antibiotics or other bad things. Policing same as above.
Yes, your Brussels sprouts might be free of chemical herbicides and fungicides, but what about GMOs, sewage sludge or synthetic fertilizers? Sorry, kids, this ain't the same as organic. Plus, background pollutants mean nothing can be entirely pesticide-free. Subject to fraud laws if used falsely.
Born free. But it could be destructively over-harvested like Atlantic cod, sole, imported shrimp and Chilean sea bass. Records supporting a "wild" claim must be made available to CFIA inspectors during audits.
Not necessarily a good thing. Catfish and tilapia farmed in pools on land are applauded as sustainable (though their flaky flesh might still be contaminated by pollutants), whereas farmed salmon bred in open-water pens are big-time polluters (not to mention loaded with antibiotics, dyes and contaminated with PCBs and the like). Asian shrimp farming is blamed for destroying mangrove forests and making shores more vulnerable to tsunamis and storms.
This one's controversial. Many say you can't control open waters (and fish feed) enough to keep contaminants out. But this stuff is free of antibiotics and given a little more swim room. Only Scotland and Ireland certify organic fish. Non-certified organic-ish farms do exist in the U.S. and BC, but the feds aren't monitoring their marketing.
A labelling program set up by Environment Canada that reviews the full life-cycle of a product for enviro, health and safety factors. Tells you the product is greener than most of its competitors.
A wood or paper product approved by the Forest Stewardship Council. It lets you know that any logging that had to occur to get you that product was done in a sustainable way.
Indicates that an ingredient naturally returns to the earth without any harm to soil, water, and air, but no one's really policing this in Canada, and it's getting slapped around. Look for certification symbols with details like "biodegrades 99.9 per cent within 28 days." Beware of laundry products where only one ingredient is certified biodegradable. Suspect fraud? Call the Competition Bureau.
This one might be subject to even more abuse than the word "natural." Who decides what qualifies as non-toxic anyway? Not the government, which consideres non-toxic "a marketing term." Who knew? Again, if you think someone's lying, call the Competition Bureau.
Most laundry and dish products went phosphate-free years ago, but stay away from those like Electrasol that still use the ecology-disrupter.
The FDA in the U.S. says it "does not know of any scientific studies done to see if 'hypoallergenic' products produce fewer allergic reactions than products that don't have the claim." Sorry to disappoint.
LEAPING BUNNY SYMBOL
If you see a bouncing rabbit on your label, it guarantees the company doesn't presently conduct or commission animal testing for any ingredients. Monitored by Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics.