We all like the idea that certain foods can transform our lives. The market success of food products with the words ‘natural’, ‘sugar-free’ and ‘low fat’ on the label only serves to highlight our belief that eating these products will somehow make us healthier, sexier and downright better people…
And yet, we also like to think of ourselves as savvy to a bit of marketing jargon. We take the promises of sugar-free with a hefty pinch of salt, knowing that the artificial sweeteners replacing that sugar also come with their own bitter truths. We pop things in the basket under no illusions that our teeth will never be as white as the woman in the toothpaste ad. We all live, and grapple with, the myths of advertising daily. So does it matter whether or not our food does what it says on the tin? When do the claims on the label actually threaten our health and ethics?
We’ve sifted through the proverbial hogwash and probed at the promises on bottles and packages to help you better navigate the aisles. In the absence of a trusting relationship with a producer or retailer – or a résumé for your chicken – we’ve looked at the labels you are most likely to encounter in the supermarkets and divided them into three categories to help you understand what the claims behinds the names really mean.
Setting the standard
Organic certification is a contentious issue, especially in the US where a multifaceted certification system causes much skepticism. Equally, using what is essentially a binary process, to grade something as complex as soil health, has raised many an eyebrow in the UK. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s little question about whether food that contains traces of toxic chemicals, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides can happily sit alongside their organic counterparts. In our opinion, the few extra pence you will spend on organic vegetables in comparison to the supermarket’s own brand is a veritable bargain when both your health and the ecological health of the planet are considered. In the UK, choosing Soil Association certified products is a safe bet in the absence of access to a grower you trust. The Soil Association developed the world’s first organic certification standards, covering everything from animal welfare and wildlife conservation, to production and packaging. The certification also ensures that there are no unnecessary and harmful food additives in organic processed foods.
Organic certification in the US, however, is a different kettle of fish; there are a number of independent certification bodies with a mix of standards and they do not always cover things such as animal welfare. The government body, the USDA, also has national certification standards although these are what some would describe as watered down. At the end of the day, no matter where you are in the world, learning the story behind your food is always time well spent. Talk to producers and investigate the standards – many of the certification boards have a local remit.
Free range eggs
This one’s a no brainer – you might think. But actually, not all nations stand together on the term. ‘Free-range’ can mean a different things depending on where you are in the world. According to the USDA index of Meat and Poultry labelling terms: ‘Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.’ The amount of time that the chicken can ‘access’ outside is unspecified, as are any further details of her life. An illuminating, if not amusing (because if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry) explanation of USDA meat and poultry terms can be found here on their website.
In the EU, hens should have constant daytime access to the outdoors with some form of vegetation available. Sadly, this is not always the case and organisations such as Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and the British Hen Welfare Trust feel that standards across the EU are not consistent. Their respective certifications, the Good Egg Award and the Eggsellence Award demark a high level of animal welfare for UK raised hens.
All organic eggs must be free range, so opting for organic will leave you safe in the knowledge that the farms have undergone rigorous assessments to ensure that our feathered friends face no threat of osteoporosis, shared nesting or feather picking. With no consistent or legally enforceable definitions for egg production systems in Australia, it’s best to opt for Australian Certified Organic or RSPCA Approved Outdoor.
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
In 1997, two unlikely bedfellows united through a joint desire to tackle the issue of seafood sustainability – the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever. Two years later the MSC gained independence from its forbears but continued their mission to develop a set of sustainable fishing standards with global industry experts. These standards now rest upon three principles of sustainability, which each accredited fishery must meet (it’s noteworthy that the MSC only considers wild, and not farmed, fisheries):
- The sustainability of exploited fish stocks
- The maintenance of the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends
- The effective management which meets all local, national and international laws and has systems in place that respond to changing circumstances in order to maintain sustainability
What we like about the MSC is that they not only take into account the impact of the fishery on stocks and the wider ecosystem, but they listen to the opinions of multiple stakeholders, such as NGOs, governments or other fisheries. In fact, anyone who sees themselves as affected by the fishery can have their say and participate in the process from the outset. Stakeholders are able to comment on reports, all of which are made public and available for anyone to access on the MSC website. This should equate to clean seas and a clear conscience.
Leaving a little to be desired
Recognisable by a blue and white logo that looks something like a dolphin completing a marathon, the long established Freedom Food is the farm welfare assurance scheme that meets the standards of the RSPCA. They cover every aspect of the animal’s life, including: feed and water provision, their environment, management, health care, transport and slaughter. This means that it’s not just farmers who have to meet the standards, it’s everyone involved in the animals’ lives from hatchery workers to those at the abattoir. With a keen focus on animal housing – i.e. no caged chickens and stanch opposition to live exports, Freedom Food is a solid choice in the absence of organic, local options. According to our knowledgeable friends at CIWF, Freedom Food is the better choice for animal welfare when it comes to dairy and eggs, trumped only by the Soil Association’s organic standards. Freedom Food prides themselves on being reasonably affordable – so affordable that is, that McDonald’s have taken to using only Freedom Food labelled pork. However, you’ll find that a Freedom Food chicken puts an extra £2 on the price of, say, a Red Tractor hen, which kind of makes you wonder just what this abundant red logo assures – more on that in a minute. In short, with Freedom Food you get a reasonable strong welfare for a more familiar market price – in other words, a decent cluck for your buck.
You are most likely familiar with these two logos. Fairtrade works in the poorer parts of the globe to ensure that producers and workers receive a fair price; and the Rainforest Alliance works in these same regions to preserve habitat and conserve wildlife. However, both labels also pay due attention to the overall sustainability of food production itself – including the protection of wildlife and habitats, and the wage and living conditions of workers and their families. So while the two organisations work slightly differently, they are quite similar in terms of the principles they guarantee across a range of foods. There is still however, a long way to go when it comes to the level by which these schemes raise wages, with some complaining that these schemes fail to lift people out of poverty and do little more than stabilise workers’ wages. Equally, Fairtrade’s recent system of ‘mass balancing‘ means that there might not actually be any Fairtrade cocoa in your chocolate bar since they partnered with Mars, Nestle and Cadbury.
Given that these two have done wonders for making sustainability more mainstream, you’ll probably encounter them frequently on the shop shelf. Rather than kicking them out of the trolley altogether, we hope that an increasingly established market for ethical goods will invite more innovators, such as the soon to launch Direct Cacao who are raising the bar for cacao sourcing.
You’re being taken for a ride
Okay, so now we’re firmly in the UK, in a UK supermarket meat aisle to be precise, and we’re surrounded by little red and blue tractors on the packages – the tractors that appear in an ‘Assured Food Standards’ stamped hoop atop a British flag. Enough of the description, of course you’ve seen them, they’re everywhere. But do you know what these Red Tractors actually mean? Simply put, the Red Tractor certifies that the meat comes from British farms and that’s it. Animal welfare on these farms need not meet more than minimum UK legal standards. So while this National Farmers’ Union and British Retail Consortium owned food standard can assure that you are not buying imported meat, they do not ensure a high quality of life for the animals concerned. For example, pigs on Red Tractor farms can be kept on fully slatted concrete floors, which thwart the pig’s natural rooting behaviours.
If you care about animal welfare as well as where your food comes from, beware if the Red Tractor is the only logo on the label. Some Red Tractor farms do also hold additional certifications such as Freedom Food, so if you really want to support better British farming and be assured that your little pork chop has had a happy life – or at least, fresh air, straw and the right to keep its tail – then avoid the uncertainty and reach for a Freedom Food label instead.
Natural tends to be the go-to term when a product needs a quick face lift to increase its allure. Why? Because somewhere along the line we’ve all taken on board that foods that are close to nature – i.e. fruits and vegetables – are good for us. So how is it then, that we are most likely to find a little ‘natural’ label popping up on some of the most highly processed foods, foods that are usually far from good for us? Well, according to the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports in the US, the prevalence of the term is due to its complete lack of meaning. The line they take is that the term is meaningless and highly misleading. A recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans by Consumer Reports found that over 75% of interviewees felt that the natural label represented the absence of artificial ingredients, artificial colours or GMOs. We’re sorry to say that they’re wrong.
The FDA states that they have ‘not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances.’ Due to this lack of formal definition, manufacturers remain at liberty to use it as they wish, especially when it comes to products including GMOs. Both the FDA and USDA allow products containing GMOs to carry the natural label. Moreover, when it comes to meat, both agencies allow the use of the natural label to be applied to products from animals raised using hormones and/or antibiotics.
Naturally, things are a little different in the UK where the prevalence of GMOs and growth hormones differs and where the FSA has come up with some strict criteria for the use of the term. Take a look, especially at the grid on p.19, but ultimately let common sense prevail.
Supermarkets’ premium brands: Tesco Finest, Sainsbury’s Taste the difference and co.
These labels represent food storytelling at its finest. ‘Authentic’, ‘heritage’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘sourced from the wisest goat in Sicily’. The romance of these labels is sometimes hard to resist. Whilst the supermarkets proudly declare these ranges as the fruits of their gastronomic ventures, there is little to be said for your Finest salted caramel cookie in terms of health, environmental or animal welfare. What’s being prized here is taste, and whilst we bloomin’ love the sound of Grissini Rubata Olive Breadsticks and Bloody Mary Soup, we have faith that we could take a stab at something similar using the tomatoes from our greenhouse and the dregs left in a vodka bottle at the bus stop. Not to brag.
What you have here is a pricey range that on the one hand, does try to recognise regional culinary heritage and take pride in the sourcing of unique ingredients, be it Jersey milk or the expression of terroir in three types of vanilla, but on the other, there is little guarantee about the sustainability of the sourcing alluded to on the packaging. It seems more like an easy conscience clearing option to us; we can buy into the story without having to engage with the ingredients either in sourcing or cooking. Far be it from us to stop you splashing out, but we think shopping around, choosing for ourselves and cooking from scratch is much more fun.
Featured image by SE
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