BUYING ORGANIC FOODS used to be the height of environmentally friendly grocery shopping. But with so many large corporations getting into the act, "certified organic" is losing a bit of its luster. While the label's federally set standards are firm about excluding foods containing bioengineered ingredients or grown with most pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, the label can't tell you if an item is from an independent local farmer who's protecting habitat and paying workers a living wage. Fortunately, various groups have created additional labels highlighting such admirable practices. While these designations are not enforced by law, a good certifying organization will be open about its standards and who's behind each label. Here's a short primer.
Milk labeled "rBGH free" is made without using Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone to increase production. Due to company pressure, such labels must be accompanied by a statement that the Food and Drug Administration has found no difference between milk with and without rBGH. Other studies have linked it to health problems in cows and people.
Free Farmed dairy products, meat, and eggs meet the American Humane Association's standards for animal welfare, including safe, cage-free environments. americanhumane.org/freefarmed
USDA organic milk is hormone and antibiotic free. Large producers like Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic Dairy have drawn criticism for confining their cows to feedlots instead of grazing them on pastures. Activists are pushing for stricter organic rules about feedlots. www.ams.usda.gov/nop
Country-of-origin labeling tells shoppers where seafood came from and whether it was farm raised or wild caught. When COOL was established by federal legislation, it was supposed to apply to meat and produce too, but under industry pressure, Congress has delayed additional implementation until 2008. www.ams.usda.gov/cool
USDA organic standards do not exist for seafood. If fish is labeled "organic," it's likely been certified by an agency in another country. California outlawed such labeling for seafood in January.
FishWise labels use color coding to indicate whether a specific fish--not just the species--is a good (green), questionable (yellow), or bad (red) environmental choice. The labels, developed with Environmental Defense, also say where the fish came from and how it was caught. sustainablefishery.org
Marine Stewardship Council certification was originally established by the WWF (known in the United States as the World Wildlife Fund), which still plays an advisory role. It appears on wild fish from well-managed and sustainable fisheries. www.msc.org
The Seafood Safe label indicates the number of monthly servings women of childbearing age can safely eat, based on mercury and PCB levels. So far, only the EcoFish brand carries the label, which is also associated with Environmental Defense's oceans campaign. seafoodsafe.com
The "certified naturally grown" label appears on produce from small-scale farmers who use organic practices but prefer to remain independent of the USDA. Some cite philosophical reasons; others, difficulty complying with the agency's fee and paperwork requirements. The Sierra Club's Atlantic Chapter supports this farmer-run program. naturallygrown.org
Food Alliance certification requires producers to conserve water and habitat and provide safe working conditions. Produce, meat, and milk from more than 200 farms, mostly in the Northwest and Midwest, bear this label. foodalliance.org
Protected Harvest is creating certification standards for crops based on sustainable-agriculture principles, including reduced pesticide use.
"Fair Trade certified" means that the farmers received a fair price for the coffee, which is generally certified organic and shade-grown. You'll also find this internationally recognized, independently monitored label on tea, chocolate, and fresh tropical fruit. transfairusa.org
Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee, chocolate, cocoa, bananas, and oranges are grown sustainably on farms that minimize pesticide use, prevent soil erosion and deforestation, protect wildlife habitat, and treat their workers well. rainforest-alliance.org/marketplace
"Antibiotic free," "hormone free," "natural," and similar labels are general claims that are not backed by any certifying organization.
"Grass fed" is understood by most people to mean meat from animals that graze in open pastures, not those raised in feedlots. To the consternation of ranchers who raise this type of beef, the USDA has proposed voluntary standards that would not require access to pastures and would allow the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.
"Certified humane raised & handled" meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that were raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, which have been linked to an increase in antibiotic-resistant diseases and other health problems in people. The label, which is funded in part by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also mandates animal-care standards. certifiedhumane.org