You Think That’s Ethical Eating? Think Again!

The food you purchase might seem healthy and humanely raised, but take a closer look at what some of those "eco-friendly” labels really mean.

by Rachel Werner

You Think That’s Ethical Eating? Think Again! - Photo courtesy iStock/Thinkstock ( #eatlocal #foodlabels #greenliving

Eco-friendly packaging is aimed at the conscientious shopper, tugging on your heartstrings before you hit the check-out counter. Although you shop with good intentions, are you confident that you’re putting your hard-earned dollars where your mouth is? We’ve debunked the meanings behind five food labels you might have fallen victim to.

1. Cage-Free and Free-Range

Be aware that neither of these terms are regulated by an agricultural entity in the United States, and an objective, standard definition is not in place to measure a farm’s adherence to these methods. “Cage-free” implies that eggs came from chickens not kept in cages, and “free-range” is generally applied to poultry of the same context; however, the overcrowding of chickens still takes place in open-air spaces and does not necessarily improve their overall quality of life or treatment.

2. Fair Trade

Do a little research to see how much of what you spend on your daily to-go cup of Fair Trade java is actually paid to workers in the developing nations where the beans are harvested. Do you think it’s fair? For years, a growing segment of the population has made an effort to buy coffee and tea that is sourced in a way that pays workers a living wage, but many people are unaware of a form of sourcing known as “Direct Trade.” This Fair Trade alternative often results in a higher percentage of your dollar actually reaching the farmers who grew your food.

3. Local

If you want to eat truly local, you need to find out how a food-based business defines the term and what amount of their ingredients are sourced within that distance. Can a patron really claim to be a “locavore” if the majority of the grocers and restaurants in the community import the bulk of their dairy, produce and meat from other cities and states? Simple ways to promote your local food culture include hobby farming, foraging, and acquiring farm shares/CSAs.

4. Organic

Remember the USDA charges a hefty fee to certify food grown using organic methods. Numerous family farms nationwide can not afford the costs associated with obtaining the rights to use the federally approved label, though their operations are more eco-friendly than the organic goods manufactured by agribusinesses that manage to be organic, enriched, and fortified all at the same time. In fact, processed foods don’t have to be all organic to boast the organic label—only 95 percent of the product must be made with organic ingredients. For products labeled “made with organic ingredients,” only 70 percent of the ingredients need to be organic. Bottom line: Talk to your farmer to find out how your food was grown.

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5. Sustainable Seafood/Wild Caught

Keep in mind when purchasing seafood there are very few reliable and effective watchdog agencies in place on a global scale enforcing safe and responsible oceanic conservation practices. (In other words, be leery of those that are funded and/or promoted by lobbyists or conglomerate fisheries likely trying to forward their own agendas under the rader). One reputable rating scale is the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program.

If you’re not growing your own food, it’s important as a consumer to think long and hard about your food choices. Chef Michael Pruett of Cento in Madison, Wis., put it well when he said this: “Raising food humanely translates into good value and doing that comes down to what’s best for our environment, communities, and future generations to come of all species.”

We only get answers when we start asking questions. Last night’s dinner might have seemed ethically sourced, but you can’t be sure unless you do your research.

About the Author: Rachel Werner is a fitness instructor, personal trainer, freelance writer and blogger. Her passionate commitment to holistic wellness and sustainable agriculture makes Madison, Wis., a wonderful place for her to call home.


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