Eco-Labels on Food Called Into Question

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dolphin safe. Bird friendly. Eco-OK. Fair Trade Certified. Protected Harvest. Nature's Friend. The guilt-free labels on food are multiplying, spurred in part by the success of the organic movement.

Some of these claims, such as "dolphin safe," have clear and verifiable standards. But what does "nature's friend" mean? No one knows for sure, other than the food maker putting it on its label.

In fact, critics say some of these labels are just feel-good slogans that offer no guarantee of real environmental protection. They say the labels' standards aren't rigorous enough and many claims aren't verified, leaving consumers paying more for nothing.

Even those labels that carry the name of some of the country's largest and most respected environmental organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense, are being called into question by farmers and consumer groups. They call it "greenwashing."

"There are some labels out there missing the mark," said Urvashi Rangan, a project director with Consumers Union, a consumer watchdog group. "Their standards aren't meaningful or their label or logo is not consistent in meaning from product to product."

"It's just a bunch of growers trying to jump on the bandwagon of organic without having to do a whole heck of a lot," said Jim Cochran, who owns Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, Calif. "It's a marketing tool."

Groups that provide such certification, and some environmentalists, defend these eco-labels, saying they may promote a broader range of benefits than organic certification by ensuring better conditions for workers, aiding conservation and, in many cases, providing lower pesticide levels for consumers who can't afford or can't find pure organic products.

"You get some of the public health and environmental benefits and send a signal back that encourages [farmers] to use less pesticides," said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, which is preparing to launch a "lower-pesticide" food marketing program in a couple of months.

However, because many of these efforts are new and oversight is lax, farming experts said it's hard to tell what strides food companies are actually making.

In some cases, food companies aren't following anyone's standards. They either create their own labels and standards or simply pay for the right to use an environmental association's logo.

General Mills, for instance, paid $115,000 to the Nature Conservancy for the right to use its oak-leaf logo on boxes of Nature Valley granola bars. The logo offers no environmental promises or benefits, other than signifying General Mills' payment to the Nature Conservancy,

Buying such products is an easy way, marketing experts said, for affluent consumers to believe they are making a difference.

"They can salve their conscience and contribute to the [environmental] movement without being terribly inconvenienced," said Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at Cal State L.A.

Certain programs, such as "dolphin-safe" tuna, have unquestionably aided conservation efforts. The label means the tuna was caught without the use of certain nets that can trap and kill dolphins in some areas where tuna are known to swim with dolphins. It also ensures that fishing boats in these areas are regularly inspected.

State and new federal organic label guidelines are providing a mostly reliable yardstick for consumers concerned about pesticides and other chemicals used in farming. To receive organic certification, farmers must not have used synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on their fields for three years, and their crops must not be genetically engineered.

Consumers Union gave a thumbs-up to the new Free Farmed label, created in conjunction with the American Humane Assn., which certifies humane treatment of dairy cows and animals slaughtered for meat, and to the Fair Trade coffee label, which seeks to ensure that coffee growers get a fair price for their beans.

But the differences between legitimate programs and marketing shams aren't clear to most consumers. Indeed, it can be difficult for even the most discriminating consumers to ascertain the validity of the claims made by many of these labels.

One certifying organization--Stemilt Growers, a marketing group that sells its fruit under the Responsible Choice label--refuses to disclose its standards or its board of directors.

Other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, allow use of their logos on a variety of products, from potato chips to beef, in exchange for a share of profits, making if difficult for consumers to know what benefit they're getting, other than a name they recognize and feel good about.

The lack of regulation of this growing marketing niche probably has encouraged many unscrupulous companies to use unsubstantiated, vague slogans such as "earth smart," "green" and "nonpolluting," analysts said.

And many are making claims about standards already required by law.

Poultry processors, for instance, may claim their products are hormone-free in an attempt to charge a higher price, even though use of hormones in chicken and hogs is barred by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some products fall through the cracks, Rangan said. Because there are no USDA humane-treatment standards or free-range regulations for egg producers, there is nothing to enforce. Consumers buying free- range eggs must take the producer's word for it. Likewise, free range beef is not monitored by the department.

Even when labeling claims are approved by the USDA, they may not be as restrictive as one could assume. Poultry raised and sold as "free range" is not required to spend a specific amount of time outdoors, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service officials said.

"The regulation on chickens is very minimal," Rangan said. "All they have to do is open the [barn] door for five minutes."

The biggest problem analysts and academics have with many eco-labels is that even when they do have clear standards, the way they are marketed is misleading or less than straightforward. A program called NutriClean, for instance, which markets fruits and vegetables to supermarkets with the claim of "no detectable pesticide residues," is especially confusing, analysts said.

NutriClean signs in a Los Angeles area Ralphs supermarket proclaim NutriClean produce as "laboratory tested" and the "finest produce available." Yet the tags and signs carry no mention of pesticides or any information about what the produce is tested for.

Academics said the NutriClean threshold of 0.05 parts per million isn't the lowest residue level that can be easily detected and certified. In fact, a handful of products are required by the federal government to have lower concentrations of pesticide residue.

Scientific Certification Systems, which administers the NutriClean program, said its standard is much lower than the requirements for many produce items. Its universal threshold is easy and reliable to test for, officials said, and less difficult to manage across a wide range of crops and pesticides.

"We needed a standardized place, a line in the sand somewhere," said Eric Engbeck, director of SCS agriculture programs.

Testing of this sort is expensive, costing farmers $600 to $1,300. But Engbeck said it gives growers access to new markets and in some cases a premium for their products.

"If a customer has been with us for more than one season, then he has to have benefited in some way," Engbeck said.

The Oakland-based company also is managing an eco-friendly line of potatoes being launched this fall by the organization Protected Harvest and the World Wildlife Fund. Bags of those potatoes, which will have lower pesticide residues, will bear the WWF panda logo.

Although SCS is certifying this program's members and doing paperwork inspections of the acreage that is claimed to be lower in pesticides, it is not sampling any products for residues.

WWF officials said they know that, as a nonprofit organization, they are walking a fine line when endorsing products, but they believe it's important to give farmers some incentive to make more environmentally sound choices.

"It's a risky business," said Sarah Lynch, a senior program officer in the WWF's Office of Conservation Innovation. It has taken the WWF and a Wisconsin growers group four or five years to develop a program that both environmentalists and farmers can live with.

Although many believe these eco-programs could have the dual benefit of cleaning up the environment and helping growers who have been struggling with low commodity prices, organic growers worry that they might cannibalize their market.

And they might have reason to worry. A new eco-program called Food Alliance Approved, developed by Portland, Ore.-based certification group Food Alliance and activist group Environmental Defense, is marketing itself as the more affordable alternative to organic.

"There's a very large consumer segment that wants to buy products grown in environmentally and socially responsible ways that aren't willing to pay the premium they have to pay to get organic," said Jonathan Moscatello, the Food Alliance's agriculture program manager.

The allure of these labels has even persuaded natural foods giant Whole Foods Markets to develop a line of "sustainable"--or less environmentally damaging--produce that will begin hitting stores this fall. But it's not pesticide-free, which has sparked a backlash from organic farmers who say the company would be misleading customers.

Margaret Wittenberg, a Whole Foods vice president, said that she was surprised by the response and that Whole Foods is reviewing the program to ensure its standards and goals are clear and meaningful. "We are just looking for ways to influence our conventional growers to improve [their] practices and looking for ways to create value for local farmers" she said. "What we want to do is accentuate organic."

Growers, consumers and the food industry eventually may come up with standards and systems that have real meaning.

"It's just going to take a little time," said Gail Feenstra, a nutritionist and food systems analyst at UC Davis. "There's nothing really standardized yet. It's still all over the map."

In the interim, Fischoff believes, many consumers just want to trust that they're doing good. "People want to believe," Fischoff said.

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Sticker Shock

Here are a few environmental claims vying for consumer attention:

Free Farmed

The American Humane Assn. developed this program to certify that animals raised for dairy, poultry and beef products are treated in a humane manner. It has clear standards that are verified by an independent third-party organization, Farm Animal Services.

Free Range

The term means an animal was raised in the open air and was free to roam. The Department of Agriculture regulates the term only for poultry production. Its use on beef and eggs is unregulated. The USDA does not require chickens to have access to the outdoors for any specific amount of time each day.

NutriClean

Produce is sold to supermarkets with the claim that it has "no detected pesticide residues" above a certain threshold (0.05 parts per million). This doesn't mean the fruits and vegetables are pesticide-free, and critics say the pesticide-residue level isn't the lowest that can be reliably detected. The program is independently verified and has clear standards, but some say its signs are confusing for consumers.

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For more information about many of the labels mentioned in this report, visit www.eco-labels.org.

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Source: Consumers Union, government and company reports

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Evaluating Labels

Consumers Union offers several yardsticks to use when evaluating eco-labels.

Claims should have meaningful standards that can be verified by an independent organization or inspector.

The standards should have originated with an independent body, not those benefiting from the sale of the products.

The same label on different products should mean the same thing.

To help consumers evaluate eco-labels, Consumers Union has set up a Web site at www.eco-labels.org.

Doing the homework is advisable, because government regulation of eco-labeling is limited. Oversight is split among three agencies:

Commerce Department: Oversees much of the dolphin-safe tuna on the market.

USDA: Regulates meat and poultry claims such as "free range" and "raised without hormones." Beginning next year, it will oversee the new federal organic program.

Federal Trade Commission: Provides labeling guidelines for companies interested in making eco-claims, and occasionally sends letters of complaint to companies it finds making questionable claims.

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