Natural, organic, fair-trade, these are all labels on our food that we have come to trust, labels that we believe tell us our purchases are good for us, good for the environment, that the people who grew our food were treated well. But who sets the standards for the labeling and who keeps track of those standards if there are any?
In reality, many of the buzz words of sustainable marketing are still just that: marketing. Take the label ‘natural’ for example. In reality, ‘natural’ doesn’t mean much. The label can be placed on foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), as was recently seen with the Kashi cereal labeling controversy. In that case, The Green Grocer, an independent grocery store in Rhode Island pulled several brands of cereal from their shelves, including the Kashi brand, and in their place posted a sign which read:
“You might be wondering where your favorite Kashi granola bars have gone. It has recently come to our attention that 100% of the soy used in Kashi is Genetically Modified and that when the USDA tested the grains used there were found to be pesticides that are known carcinogens and hormone disruptors.”
GrandyOats Granola, whose products remained on the shelves, proudly posted a photo of their cereal online showing that they do not use GMO’s in their granola. The photo went viral on Facebook and before they knew what hit them, a consumer backlash had occurred on Kashi’s Facebook page. The company was receiving so many calls that they suspended their consumer call-in line on April 25. That day they posted a video on Facebook which stated:
“While it’s likely that some of our foods contain GMOs, the main reason for that is because in North America well over 80 percent of many crops, including soybeans, are grown using GMOs. Factors outside our control, such as pollen drift from nearby crops and current practices in agricultural storage, handling and shipping, have led to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled.”
Kashi has since clarified their stance with a commitment to certify all their products as GMO-free through the Non-GMO Project, a third party verification system. While it remains a debate whether or not GMO’s are a potential health issue or nothing to be worried about, increasingly consumers are pushing for the right to know what foods contain GMO’s and which ones do not. This November a bill advocating for a GMO labeling requirement will be on the California ballot. Over 1 million citizen signatures were gathered in support in just 10 weeks of rallies.
The reality is, many of the labels on our food are fairly arbitrary without any particular accepted standards of conduct attached to them. Consumers and producers each have their own ideas around what makes something ‘natural’ and what practices can be defined as ‘fair’ in trade. Mother Jones has posted a guide to food labels which attempts to clarify which labels are tied to standards and which are up for interpretation, but even they have a disclaimer that “the game is always changing.” Until there are clearly mandated and enforced rules around this type of food labeling, consumers will have to do their own research and know that all labels are not created equal.
To learn more about GMO’s and the debate over their use in food, see our previous post here.