If You Can’t Trust the Label, What Can You Trust? Part II

23 April 2013

Today, we have a broken food system causing us to question the origin, health and future of our food, as well as the unbelievable violations and hardship that men, women and even children suffer as they produce the world’s food every day. As a result, many of us increasingly rely on certifications and labels to make ethically and environmentally responsible choices when shopping for food; be it fair trade coffee, organic produce, free-range poultry or slavery-free chocolate.

We find that there is a growing array of ‘sustainable’ choices as more food companies move to incorporate sustainability into their business models; either because they are recognising that it is good for business, or due to growing consumer pressure and a nudge of encouragement from campaign organisations like Fairfood International. However, as we saw last week – the label is not always a reliable indicator of fact. Just as the complexity of the food supply chain makes it easier for fraud or accidents to occur, the complexity and proliferation of food safety and sustainability certifications poses huge challenges as well.

A few years ago, I lead a Fairfood research project that analysed about 100 standards and certifications applicable to food products and commodities. A surprising conclusion was that only a handful of these certification labels were really worth recommending to consumers and this remains the case today. Another finding was that many food companies hoping  to cash in on the growing interest in ethically sourced products created their own corporate programs with very weak criteria and non-transparent verification frameworks resulting in a misrepresentation of their products as ‘sustainable’ when they are not, thereby misleading well-intentioned shoppers. Fairfood condemns the misuse of sustainability labelling by those who deliberately deceive consumers as they try to cash in on the popularity of sustainable products without actually making the changes necessary to qualify.

But, if you cannot trust these labels, what can you trust? Unfortunately, nowadays consumers have to do a bit more investigation of their own. As support, Fairfood continues to encourage food and beverage companies to be transparent about the sustainability credentials of their products and to take significant and measurable steps towards making their supply chains sustainable. Fairfood’s intervention this year focuses on 6 common food commodities – tomatoes, shrimp, pineapples, sugarcane, livestock and vanilla. From time to time, other campaigning organisations publish well-researched guides and rankings, which can be extremely useful. For example recently, Greenpeace published its 2013 canned tuna sustainability rankings. In addition, a few guides and tools can be accessed to help in easing confusion and uncertainty. QuestionMark is one of such useful tools that provide mostly EU consumers with a sustainability rating of consumer goods especially food and beverage products. The European Commission also recently introduced  ‘the Single Market for Green Products initiative’ – a portal aiming to not only make it easier for companies to credibly highlight their green credentials, but also to provide information to consumers in a more user-friendly way. If you must rely on certification labels, then look out for these four: Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Utz Certified and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). In my opinion, they stand ahead of the rest.

Anselm Iwundu
Executive Director Fairfood International