From organic to fair trade: what food certifications really mean

Kevin Farrell

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Not all food and beverage certifications are created equally. Some things, like the sourcing and purification of bottled water, are strictly overseen by The U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Other labels, like natural flavoring, are umbrella terms used to describe combinations of up to 100 different essences, oils or even chemicals.


Which labels and certifications are regulated? Which are just marketing speak? Here are some common food certifications worth understanding:

American Grassfed

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Multi-Species Grazing Multi-species grazing can control weed growth, improve overall pasture quality and enhance pasture utilisation. How? Different species will prefer different foods provided by the land ultimately allowing everyone to get their favourite food AND reducing the risk of overgrazing. Chickens are employed with the glorious task of eating insects, seeds and residual left by the ruminants - all whilst living as wildly as possible! Another very important aspect of multi-species grazing is natural behaviour. Other than normal needs like food and water: appropriate rest, movement, and social behaviour are aspects included that help create the happiest and healthiest cows possible. Studies have shown that grazing can reduce the risk of infection such as mastitis due to a lower bacteria load being present in an unrestricted space in the immediate environment (Van den Pol-van Dasselaar A., 2008). Happy animals = healthy animals. #longtablefarm #longtable_farm #pig #freerangeanimals #blackfacesuffolk #australianfarmers #primaryproducer #cleaneating #familiesthatfarm #joyfuleating #growfeededucate #sustainablefarming #sustainablefood #animalwelfare #ethicalfarming #knowyouranimals #pastureraised #northcoastfarming #healthyanimals #happyanimals #lamb #localfoodmovement #multispeciesgrazing #grassfed #pastureraisedlamb #knowyourfarmerknowyourfood #freshfood #eatlocal #farmtotable #supportlocal

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The American Grassfed Association awards its eponymous certification to meat, dairy and “pasture pork” produced by animals that have fed only on grass and foraging from weaning until harvest. Grassfed-certified animals are also unconfined, never treated with antibiotics or hormones, and born and raised entirely on American farmland. And the grass in grassfed, for what it’s worth, actually means grasses, forbs, legumes, brassicas, browse and post-harvest crop residue without grain.

Fair trade

The idea behind fair trade is simple: “Every purchase supports something. fair trade exists so we can support what’s fair.” Every dollar spent on fair trade-certified foods and goods creates four dollars in impact to farming, working and fishing communities worldwide. By selecting brands that transparently pay workers and farmers a fair wage, you are helping to lift people out of poverty. Fair trade-certified goods create health and safety protections for workers, and provide health insurance for communities that would otherwise go without it. Since its creation in 1998, the fair trade label has provided workers with $440 Million in income and aid.

Free range

Be wary of eggs, pork or meat boasting free range, as those foods are unregulated by this label. The USDA only polices the free-range status of chickens bred for poultry (not eggs). But it gets worse. In order to qualify for a free range-certified stamp, a chicken need only be permitted five minutes of unencumbered roaming time outdoors a day.

No antibiotics/no hormones

Two distinct labels that are usually awarded in conjunction with one another, beef and poultry can earn these stamps of approval from the USDA only if documentation demonstrating that antibiotics and growth hormones weren’t used in the rearing of the animals.


First policed by the European Union, you might think that the Non-GMO label today certifies that all elements of a food – from the seed itself to the farming, harvesting and even storage processes involved in production – are free of genetic modification. That's not quite the case. Even foods carrying the Non-GMO-certified label don’t have to be 100% free of genetic modifications. Instead, the label is given to foods that meet the highest possible standards, including testing, segregation and traceability.


The Salmon-Safe label actually appears on dairy products, fruits and vegetables, poultry, eggs, meat and even wine. Salmon-Safe foods are cultivated using practices like riverside tree planting and abstaining from pesticide use to ensure that the rivers in which wild salmon live, eat and spawn remain healthy and hospitable.


Used to primarily market coffee beans that have been grown under a shade-producing canopy of trees and other vegetation, the case for both a shade-grown certification and the farming practices at its core were first presented at the First Sustainable Coffee Congress in 1996. When you buy shade-grown coffee, you’re financially supporting ecologically-beneficial farming practices and biodiversity. In one study by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a shade grown coffee farm provided sustenance and support for 184 bird species. As few as six species are supported by unshaded monoculture farms.

Sustainably harvested

First dreamed up in 1997 by Sustainable Harvest International, the sustainably harvested certification exists to alert consumers to products created without using the slash-and-burn farming practices responsible for rapid deforestation in much of the world. Most often used to describe timber and lumber, some food and agricultural products carry the label as well.

USDA Organic

The United States Department of Agriculture awards USDA Organic certification to products that are at least 95% organically-produced, which means they have no synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers or dyes, and must not be genetically engineered or processed using industrial solvents or irradiation. The other 5% of the ingredients may include additives from an approved list. However, it should be noted that while organic food was created to encourage both healthier eating and ecological farming practices, studies have shown that organic food isn't always better for your health or the environment. 


Kevin Farrell

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