Useful (and Useless) Labels in Your Grocery Store

From Rodale News

Unless you’re growing the food yourself, you have to rely on labels to tell you if your food is clean to eat or too toxic to touch from pesticides. A recent study conducted by the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center laid out what all of the different labels you’ll find in your grocery store and what they regulate in terms of pesticides.

For each label, they indicated if it’s verified and if it has standards that prohibit pesticides, limit pesticide use, or require non-chemical or less-toxic pest-management practices. The study also noted which, if any, of 18 high-risk pesticides were prohibited or restricted.

Useless Labels:

“Natural” is probably the most meaningless label out there because the food world seems to be working with a twisted definition of the word. For most people, the term natural would signify something that is straight out of nature and has never been tampered with. But not in the food world. When it comes to pesticides, this claim is totally unverified and sets no protection against pesticides.

Ross Petty, MPA, JD, professor of marketing law at at Babson College, points out in a study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing that by 1983, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had basically given up on trying to define “natural.” And in 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to give an opinion on whether GMO ingredients could legally be called natural.

“Though natural food lawsuits to date have disappointed, they encourage marketers to drop the claim of being natural or reformulate their products to avoid future lawsuits,” says Petty. “Perhaps this will persuade the FDA or FTC to consider creating, finally, a definition for the meaning of ‘natural.'”

You’d think that something that explicitly says “pesticide free” would be, you know, free of pesticides. Not the case. Like “natural,” this claim isn’t verified and there are no standards to prohibit toxic pesticids.

Stemilt Responsible Choice

While the idea behind the label seems honorable, there really isn’t much to back it up. Consumer Reports found that it’s not a verified label and doesn’t test foods for pesticide residue. While the bearers of this label make an effort to use natural techniques, they haven’t eliminated chemical pesticides.

Useful Labels:

USDA Organic
This label says that your food stands up to the standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The certification prohibits nearly all synthetic pesticides, requires that the least-toxic option is used first, and it’s verified.

Certified Naturally Grown
This is the direct-market alternative to USDA Organic for smaller, community-based farmers and beekeepers. The certification prohibits nearly all pesticides and requires prioritization of nonchemical pest-control practices over more toxic ones. Plus, like USDA organic, it prohibits synthetic herbicides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or GMOS.

Non-GMO Project Verified
This seal means that your food hasn’t been genetically modified. While this label doesn’t put restrictions on pesticide use, it does ensure that the seeds weren’t designed to withstand heavy doses of chemicals (also known as Roundup Ready). Plus, it means that the produce wasn’t genetically modified to produce its own pesticides, which, unlike surface pesticides, can’t be washed off.

More From Rodale News: 

Demeter Biodynamic
The Demeter Association is a not-for-profit company helping farmers grow in a closed system that is minimally dependent on imported materials. Instead, farms are self-sustaining. Much like USDA Organic, it prohibits nearly all toxic pesticides, is verified, and has standards requiring nonchemical pest prevention.

SCS Pesticide Residue Free
This label means that your produce has no detectable pesticide residue. This kind of testing is a standard that isn’t widely practiced. (Even USDA Organic only requires some residue testing.) The certification doesn’t prohibit pesticide use, but it means that the produce bearing is between 10 and 1,000 times cleaner in terms of pesticide residue than conventional produce.

Eco Apple and Eco Stone Fruit
As the name suggests Eco Apple focuses on sustainably grown Northeast apples. (Stone fruit does the same for fruits with pits like peaches.) The program has been certified by Integrated Pest Management to protect the environment and the bees. It prohibits or puts use restrictions on several pesticides and requires prioritization of nonchemical pest-control practices over more toxic ones. Chemical pesticides are used only as a last resort.

Your Call:
These labels are verified but are less stringent in their pesticide rules than the helpful labels above. That being said, they often protect against other things besides just pesticides.

Rainforest Alliance
While the Rainforest Alliance Certified has a focus on environmental sustainability, the certification’s pesticide standards are pretty loose. Some, but not many, pesticides are prohibited, and use of safer options is encouraged but not required. That’s not to diminish what the label does stand for, however: increased tree cover, soil quality conservation, wildlife protection, and worker well-being.
SCS Sustainably Grown
The goal of this label is to minimize environmental impacts and provide a safe and healthy work environment for growers. This label only prohibits two pesticides and puts use limitations on one, but it does require prioritization of nonchemical pest-control practices over more toxic ones, fair labor practices, and integrated waste management.

Whole Foods Responsibly Grown
Whole Foods divides its responsibly grown label into three rating tiers: good, better, best. As you’d imagine, best is the standard you’re looking for, though there are only minor differences in what pesticides are allowed between better and best (five versus six pesticides of concern prohibited). “Good,” while still verified like the other labels, only prohibits three of the 18 specific pesticides of concern.

While the other designations of Whole Foods labeling actually mean something, if it’s unrated then there’s no regulation.

Food Alliance
The Food Alliance provides sustainability standards on soil and water conservation, biodiversity conservation, and safe working conditions. While this organization encourages pesticide reduction, it only prohibits three toxic pesticides.


Can’t find a label on the food you’re interested in? Consumer Reports shares a trick on how you can tell if it meets some of the higher standards in this video: