Food standards and certifications decoded.
Certifications for businesses can be useful, in building an easily identifiable and united approach. Green labels indicate product ‘greenness’, but there are obscure more specific details that make labels open to abuse. A large variety of labels in different countries lessens the ability to compare products properly - “Eco-friendly”, “Green”, “Low Carbon”, “Animal Conservation”.
So, we thought it would be useful to run through some of the certifications you might regularly see at the supermarket. This way you can make more informed decisions about where your money is going, rather than be left feeling like it is a token gesture.
EU ORGANIC SEAL OR BIO SEIGEL
The EU organic seal gives a cohesive identifier for all European Union produced goods. Making it easy for consumers to spot these products and make the switch for more conscious buying habits. Products that carry this label meet the minimum requirements of the EC organic regulation. In 2017 there was a push for fresh rules to be enforced as a way to drive more change and demand higher standards for organic produce. For example, the organic seal still allows for natural flavour additives, nitrite and carrageenans in its certification. However, this is a good entry level standard that allows accessibility for many farms who are perhaps transitioning into more sustainable methods. In Germany, you can still find the German organic seal a hexagon shape. Many producers use this and the EU organic seal together but they correspond to one another and add no additional environmental standard.
Demeter is a stamp of approval for products that enforce biodynamic agriculture methods. This is a comprehensive and strict verification process the insures rigorous compliance with international Demeter products and processing standards and organic regulations in multiple countries. This is a step by step process that takes into account the start to finish development of the produce and terrain. Demeter requirements exceed government mandates regulations and totally excludes the use of synthetic fertilisers, chemical plate protection, artificial additives during processing. These foods present the terroir they come from with distinctive tastes and character. This is seen as the highest grade for quality, ecology and health. Many farms that take on biodynamic practises also work towards a zero waste circular economy where all organic matter is moved in a continuous loop.
Fairtrade is designed to tackle poverty and empower producers in some of the worlds poorest regions. This is done by securing a minimum price for their commodities. Ideally when commodity prices fall these workers are still paid the guaranteed minimum for their goods to ensure they have basic protection from poverty. Usually, these are a small cooperative of workers using organic or environmentally sustainable process with high standards of animal welfare. This does not support child labour or forced labour. However, the standards of what is fair and not are somewhat blurred in each relative country. So there remains a lot of a discrepancy between pay, conditions and opportunity that us in the west would think of as acceptable, in contrast to the producers of the products we purchase. So Fair Trade can inherently be quite defective and ambiguous. However, it is important that bodies like this exist as an entry point into the problem. It is encouraged that as consumers, we all take responsibility and dig deeper into these issues.
The WWF is a part of a global network that is dedicated to six major goals: forests, oceans, wildlife, food and climate and energy and fresh water. It is the worlds largest conservation organisation working in more than 100 countries and supporting around 1300 conservation and environmental projects worldwide. Their focus is on working on a local to the global level, with their main drivers being markets, finance and governance. When you are purchasing products with this symbol you are essentially funding their projects. As the WWF is an NGO the policies are made by a board of members, an executive team to develop strategies and a national council which acts as an advisory group to the board and lastly a team of scientists and experts in environmental and wildlife conservation who conduct all the research.
RAIN FOREST ALLIANCE
As Rainforests are the lungs of the earth their protection and conservation are vital. The Rainforest Alliance is another NGO focused on building partnerships all over the world to combat deforestation. They have a reach of over 100 countries with the mission to improve the livelihoods and protect the biodiversity. They do this by engaging with rural communities, governments and businesses to defend vulnerable landscapes. In 2018 the rain forest alliance and UTZ merged into one organisation to make a single agricultural certification standard and a simpler certification process that aims to collectively improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities.
Is a privately owned certification standard backed by the REWE supermarket group. So it is likely you will see this sign in any REWE owned supermarkets, like Penny. What this means is they have taken it upon themselves to create their own internal regulating body for biological supply chains. It is good that companies do take the initiative to create such internal mechanisms however, this means that their parameters just need to meet the minimum EU biological certification standards. And while they are overseen by an independent advisory board they are at liberty to write their own rules, therefore, steering further progress in this area is up to the company rather more perhaps more stringent external unbiased parties. This system works on a partnership basis with NGO’s or state institutions to steer change. REWE and Pro Planet also state that they asses the entire life cycle of the product rather than just an isolated approach. More info here.
This is one of the largest certification organisations for quality and organic agriculture and has been around since 1982, now being recognised worldwide. In Germany, over 2600 arigcultural and 600 buisnesses are certified. This label takes into account environmental standards, societal aspects and human rights protection. This is a step up from the EU organic seal as it takes more into account like the transition into being an organic farm, poultry or cattle per hectare and at least 50% of the feed being from the farm itself. More on this here.
BIOLAND (Germany only)
This is a German based standard and has around 7,300 producers and 1000 partnerships. This is an entire commitment to organic farming practice, with a large emphasis on the health and fertility of the soil. The premise of Bioland is around the model of a circular economy. Therefore a completely self-sustaining system. This involves a complete change over to biological, no chemicals or synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, fewer cattle to the hectare, a maximum of 4 hours and 200km per for animal transportation and 100% organic food with a minimum of 50% from your own farm.
While it is great that these certifications act as an incentive for larger companies or medium scale farms to make efforts in doing things in a better way it is important to keep in mind that some of these certifications are subject to misuse. In general, all these bodies and certification should be looked at with a critical eye. Some are just advertising polys, while others are just less bad options. Certifications are also easily subject to exploitation by the larger organisations that can afford them. We encourage people to look deeply into each of these standards however we thought it would be good to provide an overview of what these symbols claim to stand for to have an idea of where your money is going when you choose these products.
After assessing these various standards we find ourselves coming back to keeping things as direct and local as you can make time for. Shopping locally means you know the farms the produce is coming from and can avoid the ambiguous conundrum you might find yourself in by trying to understand all these food stamps.
Be mindful that local small scale producers that you might find at your farmers market may employ many of these standards and work hard to ensure high quality organic, seasonal and biodynamic produce yet do not have the finances or resources to apply for some of the certifications above. At Hund Hund, we are yet to certify for this very reason. We are a tiny team, the cost in both money and resources is beyond us. Where you can always support local not only are you looking after local terrain and economies, but you are also reducing the emissions used for transport. Being informed, curious and asking questions and changing our behaviours is how we can reform the relationships between producers and consumers.
Text by Michelle Torres.