December 14, 2017
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What you should know about food labeling in Maine

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff
Updated:

Fresh, organic, local, all natural ― there are a host of descriptors that food producers use these days to market their products. While some of these claims are verifiable, others are not, and it takes a quick education in food labels for consumers to know the difference.

Knowing the contents of food, along with how and where the item is produced, is the driving force behind these labels, but only some of these terms are verified by the federal government or a third-party organization.

Labeling terms that are verified by the USDA or an independent organization include “Certified Organic,” “American Humane Certified,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” “Certified Humane,” “Biodynamic,” “Grassfed,” “Antibiotic Free,” “Fair Trade,” “Non-GMO Project Verified,” and “Maine Quality Trademark.”

“It’s a challenge in every marketplace, not just food. It’s a big challenge to look at things with a critical eye and try to figure out how you are not being deceived,” Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association deputy director Heather Spalding said. “It behooves customers to look for labels that are verifiable.”

The most thoroughly verified labeling claim is the term “certified organic,” because the product has been verified by a United States Department of Agriculture accredited certification agency to meet a defined set of standards established by the USDA.

According to MOFGA, Maine’s largest organic certifier of farms and food producers, the certified organic standards cover the product’s full life from farm to shelf, including certifying that crops were grown with methods that improve or maintain soil quality, use natural sources of fertilization, and are grown from organic seeds; and certifying that livestock are fed with 100 percent organic feed, have access to outdoors, and that their health care is focused around preventative measures. Certified organic also means that no synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering or irradiation are used during any aspect of production. Added antibiotics and growth hormones are not allowed for use in organic meat production.

Tiller and Rye, a grocery store in Brewer specializing in organic and speciality products, opened just under two years ago with a focus on having customers be able to walk into a grocery store and not have to be feverishly checking labels to make sure the products were what they claimed to be, according to Sarah Morneault, who co-owns the store with Lindsey Levesque.

“Our number one goal is to have local organic goods,” Morneault said. “For us, we really just wanted to be able to walk in and shop and not worry that we weren’t putting something healthy into our bodies.”

To be sold as organic, products must be certified by a USDA-accredited third-party agency, such as MOFGA. These products have a logo that denotes the product as “USDA Organic.” Organic products from Maine commonly also have a “MOFGA Certified Organic” logo. For Morneault, these stamps of approval allow her to guarantee that the products she is selling to her customers have been vetted.

Terms that are verified by a third-party organization have a set of standards associated with them, Spalding said. The gray area for shoppers comes when quality-oriented terms are used on a label that do not have a verifiable set of standards backing them up.

Terms such as cage-free, locally grown, pasture-raised, free range, natural, pesticide free, genetic engineering free, no additives, grass finished, no antibiotics, sustainable, hormone free or omega-enriched are commonly found claims made on marketing labels, yet there are no set definitions delineating what these terms actually mean in relation to the quality of a product, according to MOFGA. Legal standards for food labeling are set by the federal government.

“There are just so many terms like natural, free range, low spray, all [these] kinds of terms that they may be true, they may not be true, but there really isn’t a verifying set of standards or an accredited agency that would go out and do the verifications,” Spalding said.

To know whether or not claims like these are true, Spalding suggests askings questions of the producers, which is obviously easier when you are buying locally sourced products.

When a product is not available in an organic form, Morneault sources products that are branded as all-natural. However, because this isn’t a verifiable brand, she and her supplier do the groundwork to ensure the products are as close to organic standards as they can be.

Some small Maine farmers are forgoing their organic certification while still using organic growing practices, for reasons that include the price of certification, or oppositions to the USDA’s co-opting of the term organic. Some local farmers that Morneault sources from fall into this category. But people from both sides of the certification argument agree that getting to know your food producer, and shopping on a more local level, is the best way to know what you’re actually getting.

”It’s always helpful to have a relationship with the person who’s actually making the product because you can ask more questions,” Spalding said.


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