Natural Foods Merchandiser

Clarifying Produce Terms

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


A road map to guide your customers through the ever-expanding world of eco labels

Biodynamic: The biodynamic farming system, based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, predates the modern organic agriculture movement. Biodynamic farms are certified by the Demeter organization and are usually relatively small. Biodynamic standards prohibit synthetic pesticides, herbicides and genetic modification and respect environmental balance and spiritual harmony.

Certified Organic: Under federal law, with oversight by USDA's National Organic Program, all foods bearing the organic label must be certified to USDA standards by an accredited certifier (there is an exception for certification, but not compliance, for very small producers). National organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides and chemicals, as well as genetic modification, irradiation and use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. Manure use is carefully defined and regulated (more so than in conventional farming). Organic livestock standards prohibit use of antibiotics and growth hormones and require that animals have access to pasture and organic feed. Soil must be free of chemical applications for three years before organic certification can take place.

Conventional: Refers to what has become "traditional" farming using synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, rodenticides and other substances allowed for food use by the Environmental Protection Agency. Conventional farms can be any size, but a criticism of conventional farming is its bias toward large-scale "factory" farming over smaller farms.

Country of Origin Labeling: Under federal law, COOL for retailers is voluntary at this time; mandatory regulations are expected to take effect in late 2004. Some states now have COOL requirements.

Fair Trade: Refers to a business model based on the triple bottom line—a fair wage for farmers, environmental sustainability and profitability for all members in the production chain. There are 17 national fair-trade certification initiatives in North America, Europe and Japan. The most common fair-trade foods are coffee, tea and chocolate; however, fair-trade mangoes are being grown in Peru and the Philippines.


USDA National Organic Program

USDA "Interim Voluntary Country of Origin Labeling Questions and Answers"

Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels,

Food Alliance: This certification program and label was developed by a group of various stakeholders to identify farms that say they meet a list of criteria including farming methods, treatment of livestock and treatment of workers. Pesticides are allowed, but are ranked by toxicity when an application for certification is reviewed; farms must meet a point requirement to earn the Food Alliance label.

Hydroponic: Refers to methods of growing produce without soil, often by suspending roots of the plant in water and adding nutrients (synthetic or natural) to the water or growing medium.

Integrated Pest Management: IPM programs are designed to reduce pesticide use, but vary widely in scope and application. IPM is a general term that isn't legally regulated, but there are branded IPM programs with specific and meaningful guidelines, such as the Protected Harvest program, affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund and others.

Know Your "Ose" Fruits and vegetables are sometimes treated with radiation to kill bacteria. Irradiation is prohibited in organic agriculture and processing.

No Genetically Modified Organisms: Genetic modification refers to deliberate insertion of a gene from one species into another. GMO technology is prohibited in organic agriculture. In the United States, many corn, soy and canola crops are genetically modified. You won't see labels identifying GMO foods, but you may well see "no GMOs" or "GMO-free," especially in packaged foods. Like "pesticide-free," "GMO-free" is a tough claim to prove and is unregulated; know your producer.

Nutri-Clean (No Detectable Pesticide Residues): The Nutri-Clean program tests produce for residues to a .05 parts per million limit (which exceeds the legal limit for some chemicals). The label therefore provides true but limited information. Nutri-Clean also operates an accredited organic certification program.

Pesticide-Free: An unregulated and vague claim suggesting that pesticides have not been used, but leaving many questions unanswered: Does this also include herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals? How long since the soil was last farmed with pesticides? Who has tested the claim, and to what tolerance? Again, know your producer with this claim.

Transitional: Describes foods from farms using organic methods but not yet meeting the three-year requirement for organic certification. It is not a claim approved or regulated by USDA, and "transitional organic" may not be used on labels or signage. Some accredited organic certifiers have "certified transitional" programs to document farms legitimately in transition, to support their efforts to become organic and to help them explain how they differ from a conventional farm during the transition period.

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