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Sustainable? Organic? Who's Checking Ecolabels?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

Making food choices these days practically requires a dictionary. With labels like sustainable, organic, free-range, natural, and fair trade, it's hard to keep track of what they all mean. Even McDonald's is now calling the fish for its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches "sustainable," NPR reports.

If you're carting around a dictionary, you probably still won't have much luck deciphering these definitions. Some of these "ecolabels" are regulated by government organizations, while others are defined by private groups.

Where can you learn the legal rules behind these labels? Right here. Check out what's required for five of the most common ecolabels:

  • Organic. This word is tightly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and limits the amount and kind of pesticides, additives, and dyes a product can have. Producers using the label have to meet government requirements.

  • Fair trade. There are at least four international organizations that will certify a product as "fair trade" if it meets certain requirements. While there's no official definition, most certifiers require some kind of trading partnership, transparency, and respect between the grower and purchaser.

  • Free range. When it comes to chickens, the USDA requires that free range poultry have access to the outdoors. But the quality and duration of time isn't regulated, and if the chickens don't actually wander outside, it doesn't matter -- it's simply access to the outdoors that makes poultry "free range." When it comes to other animals, however, free range is an undefined term.

  • Natural. The term "natural" falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. It means nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to the product, including colors and flavors. But it doesn't necessarily mean the product is safe. For example, hemlock is natural but it's also deadly.

  • Sustainable. This term can refer to different things. When talking about fish like McDonald's new campaign, a product can be certified by several different organizations, both national and international. When it comes to buildings, the LEED certification program largely defines what is sustainable.

Even if the term isn't officially defined, products must still follow rules about truth in advertising. If you suspect a product isn't what it claims to be, don't hesitate to report it.

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