You'd think shopping for earth-, body-, and critter-friendly foods would be simple - buy organic. But even conscious shoppers can be confused by all the green labels that crowd the aisles. From cage-free and naturally raised to sustainably harvested and pesticide-free, the options for responsible eating are seemingly endless. Know which ones are government regulated, which are enforced and which tags can be whipped up by anyone with a brick of tofu and a dream.
NATURAL Hard to believe considering all the abuse this term has taken, but this label is regulated. Who knew? According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), any reference to nature, Mother Nature, nature's way or natural in relation to an entire food product should by no means be used if any process has significantly altered any earth-given ingredient. That means the addition of even non-synthetic ingredients like guar gum, hydrogenated oils, vitamins or treated spring water are a no-no. How the hell does anyone get to use this label then? Bottom line: it's not policed unless you send in a complaint. Go to town, kids.
ORGANIC It may be organic, and then again it may not. Some small farmers rebel against all the pricey red tape of certification and say their standards are higher anyway. This is an easier sell to trusted customers at, say, local farmers markets. But again, it's strictly a trust system. Some studies in the U.S. have shown that nearly half the eggs labelled organic without being certified are not organic at all.
CERTIFIED ORGANIC (or VERIFIED) There are hundreds of certifiers in the U.S. and Canada, so you might find a confusing number of logos on grocery shelves. In general, farms have to be pesticide-free for three years, avoid synthetic inputs like pesticides and antibiotics as well as deliberate use of GMOs, while stressing soil building. There also tend to be basic stipulations about animal welfare, although Europe is much better than Canada and the U.S. on this front. They're also ahead in including fair trade and social equity clauses. Canada lacks a national organic certification system, but after over a decade of trying, we should be close. Our trade partners in Europe don't really respect our messy voluntary system and are pressuring us to get it together ASAP. Many Canuck certifiers are already accredited under the American and European programs (to ease the exporting process). Quebec has had its own mandatory system since 2000 (said to be stricter than the U.S. when it comes to monitoring). USDA ORGANIC This stamp reflects the fact that the U.S. (namely the Department of Agriculture) finally implemented a national organics system in 2002. Trouble is, it created a ceiling, not a floor, and certifiers that might have been more stringent were forced to "harmonize" with the national program. Some say the USDA system is weaker than the European, and in some cases the Canadian, system in that it allows substances like Chilean nitrates on organic crops (making California lettuce much prettier than ours), and farms can have pesticide-sprayed crops on one side and organics on the other. But we allow a couple subtsances that the U.S. doesn't. Several attempts to significantly water down USDA regs, as recently as April of this year, have been bucked.
FAIR TRADE The certified fair trade logo ensures that any coffee or chocolate you get from the developing world is made under strong labour standards. Fair trade often implies that ecologically sensitive practices are encouraged, but it doesn't guarantee it. Your best bet is certified organic and fair trade.
BIODYNAMIC Very similar to organic but goes one step further by synching farming with the rhythms of nature and the cosmos, as well as using specially prepared herbs and minerals in compost and field sprays. A philosophy focused on healing the earth; certifiers include Demeter.
GE-FREE (or GMO-FREE) The feds voted down a law that would have made GE labelling mandatory. The CFIA says meat with this label has to be approved by them.
GRASS FED (or PASTURED) Yes, grass-fed cows are said to be much healthier (that is, the animals get sick less and their meat is more nutritious to the end consumer), but there are no federal standards or enforcement mechanisms in place for this one.
NATURALLY RAISED (or NATURAL) According to the CFIA, this should mean meat raised without human intervention (i.e., vaccines, hormones or antibiotics). The Big Carrot uses the term to mean hormone- and antibiotic-, GMO- and animal by-product-free, as well as free range. But the feed isn't organic.
EGGS AND CHICKEN
OMEGA 3 Sure, these eggs are better for your heart, thanks to flax- and vitamin-E-infused diets, but are the hens happy? Omega omelettes are just as likely to come from battery-caged hens as regular old eggs, and they're just as non-organic.
FREE RUN (or CAGE-FREE) These cluckers get to run around open-concept barns equipped with wire grid floors. No access to the outdoors. By the way, this is an industry-devised term. No feds oversee the label or inspect the farms.
FREE RANGE (or FREE ROAMING) Similar to free run, except these hens get to see the light of day and snack off the land.
ANTIBIOTIC- OR HORMONE-FREE The CFIA says no poultry can be injected with hormones in this country, so that part of the claim is kind of useless. As for antibiotics, the CFIA says even conventional birds shouldn't be shipped to the slaughterhouse until they test clean for drugs anyway. If the product is federally registered, this label will be pre-approved for accuracy. If it's provincially registered, it's open to spot or complaint-driven inspections
GRAIN FED Basically, this term is meant to signal, "This bird wasn't fed other birds or animals." The feds object to the label since they say it's too narrow and doesn't account for supplements like vitamins or even antibiotics. They prefer the more pointed "animal by-product-free." Policing is the same as for antibiotic-free.
PESTICIDE-FREE Sure, broccoli with this label might be pesticide free, but it ain't organic. The CFIA doesn't really approve of this term because, given all the contaminants in the environment, can anything ever be pesticide-free? If they spot test it and find out it's not, the farmer can be charged with fraud.
WILD SALMON Not farmed. Caught in the open sea.
FARMED Praised as a means of avoiding over-consumption of threatened wild stocks, farmed salmon are raised by the million in submerged net cages. Heavy in antibiotics and biocides, not to mention PCBs.
ORGANIC SALMON Farmed fish said to be fed organic soy and given a little more room to move. But how can we know for sure? There are no regs in place and no one certifies them, although Quebec is moving to regulate organic aquaculture.
FREEDOM FOOD No, this isn't another Bush invention. The label, in the UK at least, assures the public their sausage links and eggs came from animals reared in line with high animal welfare principles. Canadian branches of the Society for the Protection of Animals have taken up the cause. No success so far in Ontario, but BC and Winnipeg have their own "SPCA certified" programs up and running.
EARTH FRIENDLY, FARM FRIENDLY Pray this American term doesn't hit supermarkets near you. The label certifies that dairy farmers have bumped up production by any means necessary (from milking more to using hormones and biotechnology). The program is said to help "conserve" natural resources "while not limiting (the) freedom to farm." You can thank the Center for Global Food Issues for this twisted initiative.