March 28, 2016

From organic to free-range: eco-labels explained

By Selene Wilkinson

When walking through the aisles of the grocery store it can be confusing to try and understand all of the labels and terms you are bombarded with: organic, certified organic, natural – what do they all mean and who, if anyone, is regulating them?

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have joint responsibility for federal labelling of food policies in Canada under the Food and Drugs Act. Although there are policies and regulations in place, they aren’t always clear cut and can easily lead to confusion.

Since few of us have time to research every label, below are brief descriptions of some of the common terms you might come across at the grocery store.

The term organic seems to be the current buzzword appearing on everything from apples to cake mix – but what does it really mean? Organic products are thought to be grown without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. Sounds good, right? Not necessarily. The products should meet a set of rules overseen by the Canadian General Standards Board but unfortunately in all provinces except Quebec these standards are voluntary. This means that any company can label their product organic as long as they follow their own organic guidelines. The good news is that on June 30, 2009, the Organic Products Regulations will introduce stricter guidelines so that the term organic will mean that the item is certified organic. If not, the organic label cannot be used.

Certified Organic
Certified organic seems to be one of the most confusing terms to understand. Certification should include inspections of farms and processing facilities, and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards set out by the regulating bodies. To use this term in Canada, a product must be certified, but the tricky part is you don’t really know by whom. The guidelines are currently in the process of being completed for June 2009, at which point the Organic Product Regulations will require mandatory certification from the National Organic Standard meaning that all certified organic products will be certified by the same body. For more information, visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website.

Free-range refers to a manner of keeping livestock and domestic poultry where the animals have some access to open outdoor spaces. Advocates contend that food and food products from this category taste better and are higher in nutrients. The term has not been legally defined or regulated.

Cage-free is exactly what it sounds like, but it does not necessarily mean comfort for the animals. For example, cage-free hens could be packed together in a crowded indoor space, barely able to move around. This term has also not been legally defined and is not regulated.

Grass-fed farming involves raising livestock on open areas so that the animals are free to roam. This does not involve cages or confinement for the animals and their diet typically consists of natural grasses, legumes and plants. The animals are said to be free of steroids, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and animal by-products. The guidelines and regulations for this term are extremely vague.

Natural, Natural Food or All-Natural
These are terms that are often misused and confused with organic. Natural foods are said to contain no additives or preservatives but ingredients may have been grown using conventional farming methods or genetically modified organisms. Natural is one of the haziest terms as these products are not regulated and the label comes with no guarantee of inspection. Because the term lacks standards, the only way to be sure to know what is in your product is to know the farm and/or farmer or to research the company that has produced the product.

Locally Grown
The term locally grown can mean different things depending on who is making the claim. For example, Whole Foods, the biggest retailer of natural and organic foods, defines local to be anything produced within seven hours of one of its stores. Remember too that buying locally does not necessarily mean pesticide-free, so your best bet is to get to know the farmers in your area so you know exactly what you are buying.

Product of Canada
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that a food product may claim it is a Product of Canada when virtually all major ingredients, processing, and labour used to make the food are made in Canada. Products of Canada can have up to two per cent of their composition from product outside of Canada, including spices, food additives, vitamins, minerals, and flavouring preparations. For example: a cake that is manufactured in Canada from flour, butter, and milk from Canada, and vanilla may use the Product of Canada claim, even if the vitamins in the flour and the vanilla are not from Canada.

Made in Canada with a Qualifying Statement
A qualified Made in Canada claim, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, could be applied to a label or advertisement when the last addition to the production of the food occurred in Canada, even if some ingredients are sourced from other countries. When a food product contains ingredients sourced from outside of Canada, the label would have to state “Made in Canada from imported ingredients.” If food contains both domestic and imported ingredients, the label would then have to state “Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients.”

Taking the time to understand the labels on your products helps you avoid or reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Your best bet though, is to purchase products from the farmers/farms and companies you know and trust.