Food Labels Lie

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You’re at the store. It’s been a long day, but it’s almost
over. You just need to track down some food that wasn’t grown in a chemical
bath or harvested by exploited workers. Thank goodness for labels: fair trade,
organic, natural, responsible. These things mean something, right? Well …
sometimes.

Let’s start with the good news. Over the last few decades,
consumers have become aware of corrupt practices in the food supply system and,
in their effort to avoid supporting these practices, have fundamentally altered
the marketplace. As of 2010, organic food was a $26.7 billion industry.
In 2011, fair trade accounted for a lower but still significant share at $1.2
billion
. Ethical marketing campaigns have proven so effective that major
corporations want in on some of the profits. Such demand could have created a
positive transformation in the food industry. Imagine a world where even the
largest producers are committed to healthful food, sustainable practices, and
fair wages.

However, rather than altering business models to create such
a product, corporations are using the language of the natural food movement to mislead
people into buying exactly what they’re trying to avoid. The recent controversy
over Kashi cereals
put a spotlight on the issue (thanks, EcoSalon). As a
look through comments on Kashi’s website
reveals, many customers felt a sense of betrayal upon learning that the
Kellogg-owned company uses its natural-food image to sell products that contain
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) grown with pesticides. Buying safe,
ethically-produced food is getting tricky, and cereal is just the beginning.

Officially, the “natural” label doesn’t mean much, though Californians
are trying to change that
. They’d like the term to designate foods free of
GMOs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains
that such labeling is unnecessary
because GMOs are essentially like any
other food. This stance is disingenuous, at best. Recent research indicates
that gluten
intolerance stems from wide use of genetically modified
(and untested)
wheat crops. Moreover, many GM crops are adapted for higher tolerance to pesticides.
The issue, then, might be less with the crops themselves and more with what is
being put on them. If you’re not sure which labels will steer you clear of
pesticides, this guide
to labels from
Mother Jones offers a good starting point. But remember, the
game is always changing.

Next, we will have to keep an eye on labels reading
“responsible” and–possibly–“sustainable.” Writing for Dollars & Sense, John Latham reports that the World Wildlife
Fund (WWF) and other conservation groups have entered into a labeling compromise with the likes of Monsanto, Cargill, and BP. The
deal is that if these producers follow a set of guidelines, the conservation
groups will back labels reading “responsible.” However, the established
guidelines offer too little improvement over current practices to have the
intended effect of sustainability. According to Latham, the standards “are far
lower than organic or fair-trade standards; for example, they don’t require
crop rotation, or prohibit pesticides.” And although the WWF’s goal is to stop
Big Ag’s destruction of the rainforest, the guidelines “would still allow 25
percent of the Brazilian soybean harvest to come from newly deforested land.” Latham
quotes Claire Robinson of Earth Open Source, saying, “The [Roundtable on
Responsible Soy] standard will not protect the forests and other sensitive
ecosystems. Additionally, it greenwashes soy that’s genetically modified to
survive being sprayed with quantities of herbicide that endanger human health
and the environment.” Never mind responsible and sustainable–is it safe?

Questionable as the deal seems, it might be better than
nothing. According to Monica Echeverria of WWF, “the certification program
needs to set standards that a large proportion of stakeholders can subscribe to
and then raise these standards over time. […] The main reason WWF participated […]
was to address deforestation and its impacts on biodiversity and the people
that depend on healthy forests for their livelihoods. Deforestation is not
addressed by some of the other standards, including fair-trade and organic.”

It’s a good argument, but what about promoting companies
that are truly sustainable and calling to boycott Monsanto, Cargill, and the
others until they change their practices? Such a strategy was not even
attempted before resorting to a compromise that, in the end, deceives
consumers.

Perhaps the World Wildlife Fund is right and the guidelines
will lead to sustainability over time. Meanwhile, it’s good to know that
“responsible” foods are probably laden with chemicals and contributing to deforestation.
If there’s anything to learn from the label debate, it’s that there are no easy
answers. We have to do the research and decide for ourselves.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Riza Caparros. Image is in the public domain.

Sources: New Hope 360, Mother Jones,Dollars & Sense

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