How Do I Eat Green?
Sustainable Labels to Look For
In a perfect world, you would know every farmer who grew or raised your food, and you would be able to ask them if you didn't know what their practices were. Pasture or pen? Toxic pesticides or not? Heavy doses of antibiotics or minimal? Instead, we have the USDA certified organic seal, which is for those of us who don't have the opportunity to verify these things ourselves, says Forbord. This label assures that prohibited chemicals were not used and that a body of regulated farming practices (which depend on whether the food is plant, poultry, or livestock) were followed, and it maintains organic integrity from farm to table.
Federal standards, though, are not entirely spelled out, which is why there are other USDA-defined labels, such as "no antibiotics administered" or "raised without hormones." Still, there is a gap between federal regulations and consumer concerns. For instance, the word organic on a piece of fish means nothing, because there is no agreed-upon USDA standard for seafood. Similarly, "free-range" chickens aren't necessarily getting any exercise -- the door to their coop could merely be left open. As a result, third-party certification programs have stepped up to fill in the breach. "A lot of these smaller, nonfederal players are less known but still trustworthy," says Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy specialist at the NRDC in San Francisco. For example, there's the Marine Stewardship Council label for sustainable practices by fisheries, the Food Alliance certification for social and environmental standards and the Rainforest Alliance Certified label that regulates, among other things, the protection of worker health. One way to identify labels that are meaningful is to study up on the verification process and to research the organizations that are involved.
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