A decade ago, environmentally conscious consumers had one main label to check if they wanted to make sure the food they were buying was acceptable: organic. Today, supermarket aisles are filled with products that profess to safeguard salmon, preserve rain forests, protect migratory birds and allow cows and chickens to roam free. "There's been a huge proliferation of claims over the last three years," says Mindy Pennybacker, founder and editor of The Green Guide (thegreenguide.com), a newsletter for ecosavvy consumers. How do you know if the products are delivering on their promises? A TIP SHEET guide:
Organic: "This is the gold standard of labels," says Pennybacker. Organic crops are free of genetic engineering, sewage sludge, most conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Livestock used for milk, eggs and meat are fed 100 percent organic feed, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and have access to the outdoors. (See ams.usada.gov.)
Bird Friendly: Some coffee growers plant their crops on land stripped of its natural vegetation. But the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Council of the National Zoo verifies that all coffee bearing the Bird Friendly logo (see nationalzoo.si.edu) is grown under a canopy of trees that provide shade for the coffee and a habitat for migratory birds. Coffee grown in the hot sun requires more pesticides and chemical fertilizers to flourish, but it costs about 20 percent less.
Marine Stewardship Council: More than 500 products—from fish sticks to Alaskan salmon—carry this label, which means that the seafood you're buying was caught without endangering the species or harming the local ecosystem. Fisheries whose products carry the MSC label are regularly inspected by the London-based nonprofit.
Cage-Free and Free Range: "These are among the least-reliable labels out there," says Pennybacker. They're poorly defined and unverified by third parties. "It could mean the animal lives in a barn with 10,000 other birds," says Paul Shapiro, director of the factory farming campaign of the Humane Society of the United States. Consumers should check the Web sites of individual farms for more details about what their standards really mean.
Grass-Fed: The label sounds straightforward, but watch out. Even on conventional farms, cows are fed grass for the first few months of their lives before being switched to grain, which can cause health problems in cattle and lead to the use of antibiotics. Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests calling the producer and asking how much of the cow's nutrition comes from grass. "You'd want something up in the order of 99 percent" (for more on the health benefits of grass-fed beef, see ucsusa.org).
Antibiotic-Free: Seen on milk and meat products, this label implies that the cows or chickens were never given antibiotics, which can contribute to antibiotic resistance in the environment. Mellon suggests seeking out more specific terminology such as "raised without antibiotics." Otherwise, the beef may have at one point been given antibiotics, even though they don't appear in its system right before slaughter.
Natural: On some products, "natural" means as little as "minimally processed." On others, like chickens from Whole Foods and on steaks from Coleman Meats (colemanmeats .com), it means the animals have never been injected with hormones or antibiotics. For more information, contact the company or visit its Web site.
Still confused? More help is on the way. The USDA is in talks with producers and consumer groups about rolling out uniform standards for labels like grass-fed, pasture raised and naturally raised that will be subject to USDA inspection. Until then, socially conscious consumers "will just have to remain vigilant and stay involved," says Mellon. In this case, it's not so easy to be green.