Why “natural” has become a bad word
and how best to navigate the rising
tide of food seals and certifications
Just north of Watsonville, Fiesta Farm’s 1,000 egg-laying hens are happily roaming their 10 acres of pasture, which are emerald green after a much-needed soaking of rain.
Sarah Lopez, who runs the farm together with her husband, Aurelio Lopez, watches a brood of birds head into their nesting trailers to lay eggs. The rest of the clutch scratches at the ground, foraging for grass, bugs, worms and mice.
“If they can get their beaks or claws on a lizard or snake, they’ll eat that, too,” says Sarah Lopez, noting that the lucky lady who catches a reptilian snack is inevitably chased around the yard by envious rivals. For many shoppers, this kind of open-air living is what comes to mind when a carton of eggs carries the label “cage free,” “free range” or “natural.”
But the truth is, none of these labels guarantees that the laying hens ever spent time outside.
“What people envision when they hear the label ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ is actually best described by the term ‘pasture raised,’” explains Lopez, whose farm also rears broiler chickens, pigs, rabbits and turkeys near Elkhorn Slough.
With an acre-to-hen ratio of 1 to 100, Fiesta Farm’s laying hens truly are pasture raised—but this phrase, because it has no legal definition or regulation, can also be slapped on the products of less scrupulous farmers.
By contrast, a myriad of labels do offer consumers some assurance that certain animal welfare standards have been met. (See “What’s in a label?” on p. 54.)
In the case of Fiesta Farm, the owners say their practices go beyond the requirements of the organic label but they have not sought organic or other certification. Because the farm is so small, it can sell directly to consumers who can see the farm’s pasture-raised practices firsthand.
“Certainly, if we were going to be selling in a national chain, or labeled under a distributor’s label, that third-party certification would be important,” Lopez offers. “But I think consumers, especially those buying organic for certain reasons, are starting to get savvy to this and are looking beyond those labels.
So what are consumers who aren’t fortunate enough to know their food producers personally to do? How are they supposed to know how their farms treat their animals, their land or their employees?
The answer, of course, is meaningful food labels—backed with real, objective and sometimes even strict federally regulated standards, as in the case of USDA Certified Organic.
But lately consumers appear to be more confused than ever, and it turns out some of the more vague labels—and their abuse by companies seeking to use the nebulous labels to greenwash their products— are contributing to the bewilderment.
As a result, advocates like Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, are pushing for food label reform through regulation, legislation and the courts. In the meantime, consumers who want to know what they’re buying are forced to educate themselves about which labels are valuable and which are not—and why.
NATURAL OR ORGANIC?
It turns out that a lot of the public’s confusion about food labels centers on the word “natural,” according to a survey conducted last June by Consumers Union.
The term “natural” is neither regulated nor subject to verification or certification, and the definition changes depending on who is using it. Yet a majority of respondents to the Consumers Union survey thought “natural” meant many things, including, for example, that no artificial ingredients or GMOs were put in animal feed.
The survey respondents were also asked what they think labels should mean—and 68% said, among other things, that “natural” should require animals to go outdoors.
“It’s a bit of a quagmire right now,” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “Consumers are being misled. These labels are on the market, and companies can do very little and slap these labels on their products. Or they can do a lot and use the labels. The companies that are doing very little are undermining consumers and undermining others in their field who are doing the right thing.”
Most worrisome was the finding that more people look for food that is “natural” than food that is certified organic. In other words, more people put their faith in a meaningless label than in a well-defined, meaningful one.
“That was astounding to us,” Rangan says.
As a result, Consumer Reports launched a campaign to have the word “natural” banned from food packaging, and as of press time for this issue, it was preparing to submit a petition to the USDA and FDA that contained the signatures of 33,036 people in favor of the ban. Rangan says there is also some interest in Congress and that a bill may be on the horizon.
Meanwhile, a growing roster of big food companies, including Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo and Whole Foods, has been served with lawsuits charging them with deceptively using the term “all-natural” to describe food that is anything but.
Supporters of the outright ban on using the term “natural” are pushing for prohibition rather than regulation because consumer expectations for the ambiguous word align with what organic actually means.
The organic label is already regulated and subject to strict certification requirements, and regulating “natural” would at best be redundant and at worst would dilute the value of the organic label.
“We don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel,” Rangan says. “We should be holding the USDA accountable to keep the organic label meaning as high as it should be.”
Inside the downtown Santa Cruz New Leaf Community Market, within reaching distance of a checkout line, an arrangement of gourmet cookies is displayed at the end of an aisle. The sparkle of crystalline red and yellow sprinkles beckons from a sea of shortbreads, madeleines and speculoos—a package of colorful leaf-shaped sugar cookies that declares itself “100 percent natural.”
“‘Natural’ is the term that no one wants to use anymore,” says New Leaf marketing director Sarah Owens, “and it was, a few years ago, the term everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon with.”
She points to the shiny plastic sheath on some nearby cookies: “Now you’ll more likely see companies listing specific ingredients than just saying ‘natural’—like here, it says, ‘Made with 100 percent real butter.’”
Owens walks toward the center of the store and turns down an aisle.
“Labels are a good thing, but they can be really overwhelming,” she says. “Customers have a lot to look at on the front of a package. I mean, there are labels galore.”
Owens stops at the cereal aisle, where the brightly colored boxes feature dozens of different seals, certifications and labels.
A box of Nature’s Path Organic Crispy Rice cereal, for example, exhibits three seals from third-party certifiers: Certified Gluten Free, Non-GMO and USDA Organic. (The latter two overlap in meaning: Certified organic products are free of GMOs, but not all Non-GMO Project Verified products have been certified organic.)
Close by, Maple Brown Sugar Multigrain Squarefuls from Barbara’s boasts a non-GMO stamp between the Whole Grains Council’s Whole Grain label and a seal indicating American Heart Association Certified.
Viewed collectively, the assortment of labels is dizzying, but Owens points out that these kinds of regulated labels help companies and farms tell their stories.
Labels can also help set social standards.
One of our region’s early proponents of such label certification programs is Jim Cochran, founder of Davenport-based Swanton Berry Farm. The farm was the first berry grower in the state to become certified organic by CCOF and has remained so since 1987.
But because “certified organic” doesn’t convey all that the farm wants to share about its practices, particularly when it comes to farmworker welfare, in 1998, Swanton added another historic certification to its products by becoming the first organic farm to be certified by the United Farm Workers.
More recently, the farm became Food Justice Certified, providing it with a relatively new fair trade and social responsibility label that Consumer Reports calls “highly meaningful.” (See www.greenerchoices.org for Consumer Reports’ full “report card” on this and other labels.)
Of the new Food Justice Certified label, he says, “It’s not like we need it to sell our product. It’s more like we believe those issues should be part of the public discussion about where food comes from, and that’s our way of supporting that.”
Being organic, on the other hand, is a business and brand necessity, Cochran says, which makes it a concern that it’s under threat of dilution.
“‘Organic’ seemed to work really well for many years [since it was legally defined],” he says, “but then people started coming up with other words that tried to insert themselves into the halo effect of the organic movement—words like sustainable, which is very vague. It’s a good term; it’s just that it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
CUTTING THROUGH THE NOISE
Not all labels are created equal. Rangan says step one in avoiding the emptier among them is to ignore non-certified claims on packaging, like the terms “cage free” and “free range.”
Your best bet, Rangan says, it to put your faith in recognizable, third-party certified labels. If you want humanely raised chicken, for example, look for the stamp of approval from a certifying organization you trust, like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane Raised and Handled or American Humane Certified.
A Florida-based labeling outfit, The Fair Food Program, is going the extra step of involving workers in the verification process. The program, created in 2010 by a workers’ rights organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, together with Florida growers, claims to be the only example of a Worker-Driven Social Responsibility label, in which every worker participates in watchdogging a farm’s compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct.
A two-pronged enforcement system—audits and a 24-hour, retaliation- free complaint line for workers—weeds out human rights abuses on the farms, and tangible penalties await for violators. (The most serious is a market consequence: Disqualified growers cannot sell to the Fair Food Program’s 12 multi-billion dollar corporate partners, such as Walmart.)
“The questions [consumers] should ask” of labels, says Steve Hitov, general counsel for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “are, ‘OK, you claim this, but do you claim to ensure it? What’s your mechanism for ensuring it? Can workers report without fear of retaliation?’”
Back at New Leaf, Sarah Owens believes the store’s shoppers are generally hip to the issues and know what labels to look for. New Leaf’s job, she says, is to help make this process easier. To this end, it recently introduced new shelf tags that feature icons indicating if an item is gluten free, made by a B Corp. (a social and environmental performance rating), certified organic, local or non-GMO. New Leaf, like Whole Foods, has also committed to GMO labeling by 2018.
Whole Foods, meanwhile, is rolling out a new produce-labeling program, “Responsibly Grown,” that provides a catch-all seal of approval that takes into account the goals of many varied consumer labels and some that Whole Foods felt were not adequately addressed by existing labels, like water conservation.
Using a point system and information provided by growers, Whole Foods awards its minimum rating of “Good” to produce that was grown without Whole Foods’ list of prohibited pesticides and according to certain environmental and human health standards. For “Better,” a higher bar is set for farmworker health and safety as well as environmental conservation. The “Best” rating requires even higher environmental standards, such as protection of pollinators like bees.
Whole Foods itself is a certified organic grocery story chain, so it may come as a surprise that some “conventionally grown” produce is eligible to receive the Whole Foods Responsibly Grown top rating of “Best.” But this is the case, so long as produce is not tainted by pesticides specifically banned by Whole Foods and meets the other requirements of the “Best” label.
“There are many non-organic producers who are really excellent stewards of the land that we want to celebrate,” says Matt Rogers, Whole Foods’ global produce coordinator, based in Watsonville. Whole Foods only launched Responsibly Grown in October 2014 and has not yet rated all of its produce. But so far, customer response at the chain’s Monterey location has been positive, says the store’s marketing team leader, Cody Compau.
“They’re appreciating that we’re being more transparent about what they’re buying,” Compau says of his customers. “They’re able to make more conscious decisions.”
But while salutary, the Whole Foods program has its limitations in solving label confusion: It is not a full-blown certification program, and it only applies to the products it sells. (As of press time it also had not yet been rated by Consumer Reports.)
What then should be done to remedy label confusion across our communities and the country?
Should government improve definitions and regulations for food labels? Is it up to companies to label more responsibly, to retailers to be a better middleman? Or should consumers do the research and decide for themselves which labels to trust?
According to Rangan, the answer is all of the above.
“We’re pushing all those levers,” she says. “We want to keep people educated. We want companies to do more and be less deceiving. And we want the government to make sure that greenwashing can’t be as pervasive as it is in the marketplace.”
In the meantime, consumers need to educate themselves about what food labels mean and what they don’t—and seize opportunities to look beyond the labels when they can.
“At the end of the day,” says Fiesta Farm’s Sarah Lopez, “I think this all argues for having a closer relationship to your food and the people who grow it.”
WHAT’S IN A LABEL?
The Meaningful And The Meaningless
Consumer labels don’t always mean what you think they do. To help sift through
some of the more common ones, we show below Consumer Reports’ ratings based
on the following criteria: 1) Meaningful, verifiable standards; 2) Consistency; 3)
Transparency; 4) Independence; and 5) Public Comment. Not finding the label
you’re looking for? Go to Consumer Reports’ excellent eco-label resource,
GREENER FIELDS TOGETHER
A relatively new Monterey-based national program called Greener Fields Together does not yet offer a consumer label, but its cheery sunrise logo is a way for agriculture sector companies to demonstrate they are serious about improving the sustainability of their operations.
Members—which include local companies like Natureripe, Taylor Farms and Andy Boy—are selected after filling out detailed surveys on topics like energy use, water, recycling, composting, packaging, philanthropy and good employee practices—and committing to making continuous improvements.
“I don’t want to greenwash,” says Kathleen Phillips, supply chain sustainability manager of the 2-year old alliance. “Do all of our farmers do a stellar job? Nope. But are they working on it? Yes. I’m never going to tell you we have a totally sustainable supply chain, but we’re working on it.”
The label helps growers communicate their improvements to distributors as well as foodservice and retail partners.
Taylor Farms, for example, has reduced energy use by 10% in its Salinas processing plant, and Natureripe, the north Monterey County strawberry grower, uses integrated pest management to help reduce overall pesticide use.
Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist living in Santa Cruz, California. In this fruitful region and beyond, she finds the intersections of food, ag, health and the environment to be the most intriguing realms to write about. A bookworm and vegan foodie, the San Diego native has lived in Santa Cruz for a decade, relishing its redwood forests, fresh produce, delicious wines, and sparkling sea.