Know Your Food: The Food Labeling and Certification Craze
By admin October 26, 2018

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In 1990 the United States Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). The legislation was a response to the steady increase in prevalence of organic products since the start of the organic movement in the 1940s. The organic movement, in addition to increased environmental awareness, led to the creation and growth of an organic foods and products industry. At the time, though, there were no standards or regulations that defined organic agriculture or even an agreed upon definition of organic.

As the movement and industry grew, the need for common definitions and regulations became apparent. OFPA mandated the development of a national standard for organic food and fiber production. This was completed in 2002 and culminated in the launch of the USDA organic certification.

Since then, demand for organic foods has steadily grown – even though both consumers and farmers pay a premium for these foods. The certification process is arduous and cost intensive making it prohibitive to a number of farmers. Those who do choose to pursue the certification often end up passing on costs to consumers. Despite this, there is a large and continued buy-in into the organic certification. There are currently 18,513 organic farms and businesses in the United States alone. Since 2002, the National Organic Program’s budget has grown 7.5 million dollars to over 9 million in 2017.

The first third party certification programs originated with the organic movement but the success of the USDA organic certification created the food certification market that exists today. Consumers and producers can now choose from many different organic certifications, cruelty free certifications, fair trade, biodynamic, certified humane, grass-fed, cage-free, hormone free, certified naturally grown, whole foods market responsibly grown, kosher, pareve, Rainforest Alliance certified, and countless others. By 2019, the food certification market is estimated to be a 14.5-billion-dollar market and experience an annual growth rate of 5.39% between 2018 and 2022.

The continued success of the USDA organic certification, and the growth of the food certification market as a whole, illustrates the rise and the power of the conscious consumer. It demonstrates consumers demand for information, transparency and quality control mechanisms in regards to the food and food products they are purchasing. Furthermore, it shows how the food industry has adapted to meet the demands of this customer segment – that voting with your dollar really does have power.

But, what exactly is third-party certification (TPC)? And how do consumers tell the difference between a TPC and simply a marketing label?

A third-party certification is a seal or logo that indicates an independent organization has verified that the producer met a set of meaningful and consistent standards, typically for environmental stewardship, animal welfare and/or social justice. A producer will contract with a certifier of their choice who then is paid to review the relevant steps in the producer’s value chain and determine whether or not it meets the standards for the specific certification the producer is seeking. TPCs serve as a credible signaling institution that facilitates the reduction of uncertainties related to information asymmetries in food quality and safety attributes.

It is important to note that producers have the power to select what certifications they want to pursue. While TPCs provide information important to consumers in regards to what they are purchasing, the selection of TPCs to include on a package are part of producers’ overall marketing strategies.

If you are buying based on a certification or front of package food label, you are voting with your dollar and need to make sure there are actual standards associated with it and it is not just a marketing claim. Front of package labels (such as “all-natural”, “artisanal”, “whole-grain”, and “superfood”) are nothing more than marketing claims with no agreed upon, regulated or enforceable definition.  Ensure the labels you care about are backed by meaningful standards that are verifiable.

Third-party food certification’s help fight false marketing claims, empower consumers and provide integrity to the growing market opportunity of the conscious consumer. TPCs give the consumer power to make informed choices and show producers what they care about. When we understand this, we can vote with our dollars for a safer, more humane, more just and more sustainable food system.


Further Reading:

  1. Consumer Reports: Greener Choices
  2. The Terms on a Food Label to Ignore, and the Ones to Watch For
  3. Food Labels are Super Sneaky. Here’s What They Really Mean
  4. What Can Blockchain Really Do For the Food Industry

Thanks for sharing !

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