April 21, 2015

Happy Earth Day: Deciphering eco labels

You don’t have to travel far to honor Earth Day. A quick ─ no, make that a slow and thoughtful trip to the grocery store or farmers market will give you everything you need to celebrate at your own table.

Our globalized food-production system, which is built on speed and convenience, is leaving its mark on the planet: Agriculture contributes to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving climate change and an increase in pollution and disease. And experts agree that antibiotic use in agriculture is contributing to the rise of “super bugs” and other drug-resistant infections in people.

That’s why on Earth Day and every day, paying attention to how and where our food comes from can be just as important as what we eat.

Kaiser Permanente relies on a Sustainable Food Scorecard  to give preference to food suppliers whose products are grown locally and are sustainably produced. The scorecard has helped us increase the amount of sustainable food we purchase annually for patient meals and cafeterias to 19 percent of our total food spend – and counting!

Here are some of the eco-friendly food labels that score big points with us, and can increase the bounty of healthy, delicious food in your grocery bag, too:

Labels can be deceiving. Your guide to some common eco-friendly food labels, and their meanings

Certified Humane Raised & Handled: The Certified Humane label means that the farms raising the animals met the Humane Farm Animal Care program’s standards that aim to improve humane living conditions and humane treatment during transportation and slaughter. Certified Humane standards also require prudent antibiotic use and prohibit artificial growth hormones and animal by-products in animal feed. The label does not mean that chickens and pigs went outdoors, or that beef cattle and dairy cows had continuous access to pasture for grazing

Animal Welfare Approved:  The AWA label is the only label that assures consumers that the animals were raised humanely on a family farm from birth to slaughter, with adequate and meaningful welfare protections and outdoor access. For poultry, it is one of the only animal welfare labels that requires access to pasture.

A merican Grassfed:  The American Grassfed label means that the animals were grass-fed throughout their entire lives (after weaning), with no grain ever. The animals had continuous access to pasture, and when weather conditions prevent them from grazing on pasture, they’re given a grass-based forage. The standards also prohibit antibiotics, growth hormones, and the use of certain parasiticides.

USDA Organic: Food is grown and processed following strict federal standards designed to promote sustainability and minimize synthetic inputs in farming and production.

Food Alliance Certified: Food is produced on farms and processed in facilities that aim to meet standards addressing different areas of sustainable and responsible food production. The standards cover the following areas: reducing pesticide use through integrated pest management (rather than prohibiting all synthetic pesticides), soil and water conservation, animal welfare, wildlife and biodiversity conservation, and fair working conditions.

Non-GMO Project Verified: This seal means the product has been made without the intentional use of genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs), and that best practices were followed to prevent contamination with GMOs. Does not guarantee the product is “GMO-free.”

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Certified: Guarantees that wild seafood was caught using methods that do not deplete the natural supply. It also guarantees that fishing companies do not cause serious harm to other life in the sea, from coral to dolphins.

Fair Trade Certified: Generally means products come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated.

Rainforest Alliance Certified: Means that the farm where the product was grown meets Sustainable Agriculture Network standards, including ecosystem conservation, wildlife protection, and water conservation; also includes fair treatment and good working conditions for workers. The standards also require or encourage certain basic animal welfare practices.

Bird Friendly: This label is found on coffee, and means that the farm where the coffee is grown is certified organic and maintains canopy for diverse bird habitat. (Coffee farms typically cut many trees to increase yields from coffee crops.)

Salmon-Safe: Means farm uses agricultural practices that promote healthy streams and wetlands. The label can be found on beef, dairy, fruit, vegetables, legumes, beverages etc.

BPI Compostable: Product has been certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) to meet rigorous standards for composting, i.e. it will break down into usable compost in a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment. Compostable products are biodegradable, but with the added benefit of introducing nutrients back into the soil.

Forest Stewardship Council: The FSC label ensures that the forest/paper products used are from responsibly harvested and verified sources.

Green Seal: Ensures that a product meets rigorous performance, health, and environmental criteria. Certification backs up manufacturer’s environmental claims, and helps consumers identify products that are safer for human health and the environment.

rBGH/rBST-free: Means dairy cows were not injected with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH, also called rBST, to boost milk production.