Food labels: deciphering the mysterious code

As promised, this is a post about food labeling! And some of the issues around labeling, lack thereof, and its health implications (human, non-human, and ecological). Disclaimer: this information was largely gathered from the internet and I assumed it was current at the time I wrote this post. If you find something that’s more up-to-date, I’d be happy to include it.

Take a look at the following logos, which appear on food packages, and see if you can figure out what they mean. Which ones follow stringent regulations in order to carry such a symbol? Which are governed by third-party certifiers? What does each one indicate about the food in the package?

  

     

There’s so much to figure out label-wise when you’re trying to make more informed purchases, or find a higher quality product. Read on to see what I found when searching for the true meaning of some common food labels (and definitely do your own research too!)

GMO-Free

You may observe a label like this one on food packaging:

According to their website, items with this label have been found to contain less than 1% GMO ingredients. (GMO = Genetically Modified Organism: a plant or animal that has been genetically altered, by having a gene from a different species inserted into its own DNA sequence.) They generally test foods with ingredients that are likely to be GMOs, such as canola, soy, corn, and beet sugar. This page has more information about the process. The Non-GMO Project is voluntary, so relying solely on this to determine whether you’re buying GMO products is not reliable, although it’s a step in the right direction. There are currently no labeling laws in place in Canada that tell the consumer whether the food they’re buying has been genetically modified, even though almost everything containing corn, canola, or soy is GMO. Most of the corn and soy grown in North America is genetically modified, and most of it is fed to animals, who are then eaten by humans. Processed foods that contain things like corn syrup or canola oil almost certainly contain GMOs. So it’s easy to see how we unknowingly consume these items – they’re everywhere! Even Whole Foods can’t escape them.

Aside from human health concerns about consuming GMOs and being exposed to the chemicals used on them, other major concerns are their threat to biodiversity, the monopolies that GMO seed companies have over certain crops (and thus the lack of food sovereignty that is happening in many countries), and the damage being done to the land and ecosystems that sustain us. I will do a more extensive post on GMOs later.

2 examples of what might be lost if we continue to narrow our crop diversity by using GMO crops – glass gem corn, and many indigenous Peruvian potato varieties:

  
(corn picture from Milkwood Permaculture)

It’s scary to think that our currently precarious food security could so easily be lost if the few GMO crops we grow face drought or other disasters. But people are doing something about it! Check out the interview below with the incredible Vandana Shiva, international food activist, working to preserve biodiversity in food systems and to ensure food security for all. She talks more about monopolies over seeds, and how people in India are fighting for control over their own crops.

Seed banks and other organizations such as Seeds of Diversity help farmers and food enthusiasts preserve rare varieties by helping people grow them and save seed, some of which is stored for future use.

‘Cage Free’, ‘Free Range’ and ‘Free Run’

As seen on egg cartonsc, meat packages, etc. These terms are not regulated, but are generally taken to mean that the hens who laid the eggs were not caged. Over 90% of Canada’s hens are kept in battery cages in warehouses and suffer severely as a result. ‘Free run’ hens are kept in warehouses, and according to the Chicken Farmers of Canada, they must “be able to move freely around the barn”.  There is no legal definition of ‘free run’ in Canada. ‘Free range’ hens are generally also kept in warehouses and are given some access to the outdoors, but there is also no legal definition for ‘free range’ in Canada. This lack of regulation means that a label can be slapped onto an egg carton without the farm having met any guidelines, and then sold at a higher price as a ‘specialty’ item. As you can see, large warehouses without cages are still extremely crowded and welfare concerns obviously still exist.

As I was writing this section of the post and was seeking links to add to the above paragraph, I Google searched “free range” and one of the first things that came up was this company’s website:

Notice at the bottom it says “Ltd”. This symbol is not an indication of how animals were raised before they became the meat that this company is selling; it is the brand of a company that sells meat, meant to trick the unknowing consumer into thinking they’re buying something that was maybe more “humane” or “naturally raised”. The website states what the company “specializes” in, but their products are not held to any specific, across-the-board standard. This is why we as consumers should be vigilant when reading labels: companies can almost put whatever the hell they want on a label and get away with it, even if it’s misleading or deceiving. What a dirty ploy to make money off of people who are trying to make better choices. This is definitely a reminder to me of how important it is to remember that when someone’s selling you something, they’ll try to sell it by showing you what you want to see. It’s also a stark reminder of our lack of labeling laws.

Product of ____ , or Made in ____

This is a complex one. Until recently, a “Product of Canada” claim was based on the fact that 51% of the processing costs were incurred within Canada (ie, it had nothing to do with the food itself). “Made in Canada” could be applied if most of the key processing was done here. This is a sticky subject so if you’d like to learn more, take a look here. Ultimately, regulations about this label have become more stringent than they used to be.

Organic

A regulated term in Canada, a product that is certified organic must meet the Canadian Organic Standards for that product. There is way too much to get into here, so I suggest you read them yourself if you’d like to learn what the standards are. To be sold under an organic label, a third party certifying body must inspect the farm and review its records annually to ensure the farm is complying with the Standards. Examples of certifying bodies include Ecocert, Quality Assurance International, and Pro-Cert; their seals will appear on the packaging of certified foods. Products grown outside of Canada, but shipped and sold here, do not have to comply with Canadian Organic Standards to be sold as organic in Canada. It’s important to note that not all farmers choose to be certified, even though they may be using organic growing methods; it’s not always economically feasible, and small farms that sell directly to consumers may not find it effective as a marketing tool. If you’re unsure, you can always ask your farmer about their practices. Again, keep in mind that you are being sold something – it’s good to have specific questions to ask. Many small farmers try hard to maintain transparency and are happy to talk about their farm practices. I would be wary, though, of products in grocery stores that claim to be organic but have no certification seal.

Quality Assurance International (QAI) is a third-party certifier of organic foods. This symbol means the product meets organic standards.


Natural

A vague, loosely regulated term. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) states that “A natural food or ingredient of a food is not expected to contain, or to ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive” (emphasis mine). It also “does not have any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water” (emphasis also mine). In this document the CFIA does not define what a “significant change” is. It also does not mention whether these definitions must be adhered to in order for a food to be labeled ‘natural’, so it’s safe to assume that this label is not regulated. Many people assume that a food labeled ‘natural’ was grown or raised a certain way, and will pay more for such an item, even though there’s no actual standard ensuring that this is the case.

Local

Until recently there hasn’t been much in the way of regulation when it comes to labeling foods as “local”. The definition of what’s considered local (ie. how far it traveled to reach one’s plate) differs depending on who you talk to. The recently created Local Food Plus label has popped up all over Ontario. Interestingly, their website mentions nothing about what “local” means, although after much searching I finally found their Certification Standards (PDF) which states that the farm must be within the same province as the distributor and must be owned by someone who lives in the province. Their criteria for maintaining certification focus mainly on ‘sustainable’ practices for farms and for processing plants, ie. reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the property, treating workers fairly and providing a standard of care to animals which is above the minimum provincial standards. A farm or processor can become certified by adhering to 75% of the criteria listed, and can pick and choose which parts of it they wish to, or do, comply with. The Local Food Plus certification system has expanded from Ontario to some other provinces.

I recently saw a sticker around my hometown that says “buy local”. It appears on supermarket doors and the like. I found this curious because almost every business I saw it displayed in was a chain or franchise. The location of that specific store may be local, but the products being sold generally are not, and the store itself may not even be locally owned. This is a puzzle to me – my guess is it’s a marketing ploy, but I didn’t have the chance to ask anyone about it. I suppose it encourages people to stay in town to do their shopping.

Demeter Certified/Biodynamic

Demeter certification indicates that a product was produced using biodynamic methods. The Demeter website does not outline what certification entails, but biodynamic farming is similar to organic farming in some ways.

Veganic/Vegan/Vegetarian

I haven’t seen this much, but I know it exists. US-based Vegan Action has developed a logo to put on foods that contain no animals or animal products. There are more out there but they are obscure in my experience. Here’s a list of some examples. Veganic certified would mean that not only does the food contain no animal ingredients, it was also grown without animal inputs such as bones, feathers, or manure. More information on veganic agriculture here, also mainly for the USA and the UK. I didn’t find much about certification standards.

Farm Fresh

Another meaningless label. I think this one is meant to evoke the image of the idyllic red barn with frolicking animals around it. It’s definitely a marketing ploy. This claim is not monitored or regulated in Canada.

Battery caged hens lay “farm fresh” eggs.

So, you can see that this is a slippery slope. It’s very frustrating to have to do so much searching to determine how our food has actually arrived on our plate. We want to trust our farmers, government and other authorities to provide us with factual information and transparency, especially when it comes to something as important as food, but unfortunately we’re still at the stage where sleuthing is necessary in order to find out the real story of our food. As you may have noticed from the descriptions of each label listed above, the USA and the UK are pretty far ahead of us on this issue.

I want to mention again the importance of asking questions. For instance, I love farmers’ markets. They can be great places to source local/organic/etc food and connect with growers – but many are not exclusively selling local/organic/etc food. A few years ago at my local market I was checking out one of my favourite tables, that of an organic farm nearby. As I browsed, I overheard the vendor talking to a customer who’d asked where the garlic was from. To my surprise, the vendor’s answer was “China”. Asking questions is always a good way to find out what you’re really getting, and who is really selling what they grow, versus who’s distributing the same food you’d get from the grocery store. (I gave this vendor a break and kept buying from them despite this incident, due to their reputation, honesty about the garlic, and the fact that it was late winter – their own garlic stores may have run out by then, and they probably brought in the other garlic to meet the demand of market-goers). Unfortunately, distributors selling imported food in farmers’ markets is common, but people are working to include more actual farmers and to cut down the number of distributors who sell at markets. One example is the Victory school market in Guelph and the Dufferin Grove market in the west end of Toronto.

I encourage you to do your own sleuthing and find out more about where your food comes from. Much of the information I included here was found through web searches and looking at the websites of governing bodies. If you’re interested in improving labeling laws in Canada, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) is working towards mandatory food labeling for GMOs.

This will likely be my last post before I leave on my WWOOFing adventure on Wednesday, so stay tuned for some updates on those farms!

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About tino

I'm an aspiring organic farmer living in canada. I talk about farm life, things I'm learning, other relevant topics like feminism, social & environmental justice, nature, animals, vegan food, and fun.

Posted on May 21, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Tino, I included your blog in a list of resources related to sustainability: Sustainability: Reflection and Blog Roll. Thanks for the great content!

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