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Eco-food labels increase in US (Eco news)

Eco-food labels increase in US
Monterey County Herald reported

Want to avoid pesticides and antibiotics in your produce, meat, and dairy foods? Prefer to pay more to make sure farm animals were treated humanely, farmworkers got their lunch breaks, bees or birds were protected by the farmer and that ranchers didn't kill predators?

Food labels claim to certify a wide array of sustainable practices. Hundreds of so-called eco-labels have cropped up in recent years, with more introduced every month — and consumers are willing to pay extra for products that feature them.

While eco-labels can play a vital role, experts say their rapid proliferation and lack of oversight or clear standards have confused both consumers and producers. "Hundreds of eco labels exist on all kinds of products, and there is the potential for companies and producers to make false claims," said Shana Starobin, a food label expert at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Eco-labels have multiplied in recent years in response to rising consumer demand for more information about products and increased attention to animal and farmworker welfare, personal health, and the effects of conventional farming on the environment. "Credible labels can be very helpful in helping people get to what they want to get to and pay more for something they really care about," said Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety at Consumer Reports.

"The labels are a way to bring the bottom up and force whole industries to improve their practices."
The problem, Rangan and other said, is that few standards, little oversight and a lot of misinformation exist for the growing array of labels.

USDA standards

Some labels, such as the USDA organic certification, have standards set by the federal government to which third party certifiers must adhere. Some involve non-government standards and third-party certification, and may include site visits from independent auditors who evaluate whether a given farm or company has earned the label.

But other labels have little or no standards, or are certified by unknown organizations or by self-interested industry groups. Many labels lack any oversight.

And the problem is global, because California's products get sold overseas and fruits and vegetables from Europe or Mexico with their own eco-labels make it onto U.S. plates.

The sheer number of labels and the lack of oversight create a credibility problem and risk rendering all labels meaningless and diluting demand for sustainably produced goods, Rangan said.

Daniel Mourad of Fresno, a young professional who likes to cook and often shops for groceries at Whole Foods, said he tends to be wary of judging products just by the labels — though sustainable practices are important to him.

"Labels have really confused the public. Some have good intentions, but I don't know if they're really helpful," Mourad said. "Organic may come from Chile, but what does it mean if it's coming from 6,000 miles away? Some local farmers may not be able to afford a label."

In California, voters this week rejected a ballot measure that would have required labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients.

Farmers like Gena Nonini in Fresno County say labels distinguish them from the competition. Nonini's 100-acre Marian Farms, which grows grapes, almonds, citrus and vegetables, is certified biodynamic and organic, and her raisins are certified kosher.

"For me, the certification is one way of educating people," Nonini said. "It opens a venue to tell a story and to set yourself apart from other farmers out there."

But other farmers say they are reluctant to spend money on yet another certification process or to clutter their product with too much packaging and information.

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