Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sustainably grown certifications explained

There are so many certification labels on food these days and the most confusing are the ones stemming from organic, organic alternatives, naturally grown and the like. As you try to choose sustainably grown foods, it is important to have a good understanding of what each of the labels means.

So, I've put together a brief primer of what the most common certifications generally mean, so you have a better idea of what you are buying and can feel confident when you are purchasing from sustainable-oriented farms that you are choosing something that is safe for the environment, your health and your family.

Certified Organic - When a product is labeled "certified organic" it means that the grower has complied with the following standards:
  • avoided most synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge
  • used farmland that has been free from chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more)
  • kept detailed written production and sales records (audit trail)
  • maintained strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products
  • undergone periodic on-site inspections

    Claimed Ecologically Safe - There is no certification for this, it is the producer making the claim to use organic practices (see above), but without being checked. Not all farmers can afford the process of becoming organic certified, so they will follow the organic farming guidelines but won't pay for an actual certification.

    Certified Naturally Grown From the CNG website, "when USDA's Organic program was implemented in 2002, many farms earning more than $5,000 per year were forced to make a difficult choice: either pay high certification fees and complete mounds of paperwork to become Certified Organic, or else give up using the word 'organic' to describe their produce and/or livestock.

    Believing that neither choice was very attractive, some farmers created Certified Naturally Grown to provide an alternative way to assure their customers that they observed strict growing practices. CNG strives to strengthen the organic movement by removing financial barriers to certification that tend to exclude smaller direct-market farms, while preserving high standards for natural production methods."

    Details of the certification standards can be found here, but suffice it to say that they are very similar to the Organic certification standards, just more affordable.

    Food Alliance Certification - The Food Alliance site states that this certification is: "independently verified by a third-party certifier. To be certified, farms, ranches, and food handlers need to meet a comprehensive hierarchy of standards, evaluation criteria, and indicators."

    These standards include (but are not limited to):
  • Providing safe and fair working conditions
  • Ensuring the health and humane treatment of animals
  • No use of hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics
  • No genetically modified crops or livestock
  • Reducing pesticide use and toxicity through integrated pest management
  • Protecting soil and water quality
  • Protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat

    And, for those of you who live in the Northwest:

    Salmon Safe Certification - According to the Salmon Safe website: "The Salmon-Safe label on a product means it was created using healthy practices that keep Pacific Northwest rivers clean enough for native salmon to spawn and thrive. Farms and urban sites earn Salmon-Safe certification after a rigorous assessment that includes on-the-ground inspection by expert independent certifiers.

    Land managers can do much to promote healthy landscapes for salmon by planting trees along riverside areas, improving irrigation systems to reduce erosion, and limiting pesticides and other pollution from reaching waterways. On a product, the Salmon-Safe logo refers to how the crop is produced, not to the food or beverage product itself."

    So, there you go. I hope this helps clarify some of the labels and certifications you see when making food purchasing choices. Really, the best way to know how your food is grown is to talk to your grower by visiting their websites, meeting them at farmers markets and going to their farms if at all possible!

    Robj98168 said...

    Phew! Thanks for making a complicated list less so.

    JessTrev said...

    Thanks - helpful. I might add IPM (integrated pest management) and biodynamic, which I see a lot of here in the Mid-Atlantic, to your list.

    Amy in Tacoma said...

    I am trying to start a young-run urban garden, so this list is very helpful!

    J.G. said...

    This is really helpful, especially to those of us who are just beginning to understand the subtleties of the sustainable food movement.

    Food Alliance said...

    Also note that Food Alliance is the most comprehensive and credible certification for sustainable food production and handling in North America. Food Alliance is also the ONLY certification program that requires continual improvement - a key concept for sustainability.