How to decode food labels and shop with a conscience

Is it healthy? Is it organic? Is it fairly traded? How far has it travelled? At times, making informed choices can feel like a full-time job. Here is a pocket guide to buying food from the new book Stuffed

More than anything else, the new interest in ethical shopping indicates a break away from a consumerism based solely on economic value to one based on social values rooted in less tangible, but equally important, concepts such as connection, community and care for others - especially those who live far away.

'Caring at a distance', as ethical shopping is sometimes defined, can help to support people in the developing world. But it can also produce high levels of pollution through air miles and manufacturing emissions, and mountains of waste through the multi-layered packaging required to move goods around the globe and store them on supermarket shelves. It can also leave locally produced goods, services and communities in the UK without investment.

A telling piece of research from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, University of California Santa Cruz, in 2005 showed how easy it is to get shunted down a single avenue of 'caring' and lose sight of the bigger picture, even when you are trying to shop ethically.

The researchers found that when asked to rank the importance of five eco labels (indicating whether a product was humanely reared, locally grown, provided a living wage to workers, US grown or from a small-scale producer) nearly twice as many people said they were concerned about animal welfare than those who were concerned about the welfare of those who grew and picked their food (30 per cent versus 16 per cent).

The need-to-know info

Some labels are genuinely useful. When you buy an organic product, for instance, you are assured of sustainably produced foods without synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering or radiation. Organic farming minimises damage to the environment and wildlife. If it is home grown you are also getting fresh food, with a higher nutrient value.

But beware labels that hide from us as much information as they reveal, and sometimes more. They can hide the thousands of miles our food travels, the dozens of steps needed to procure and add the various ingredients, the working conditions of the people who grow and produce it, the levels of pesticide residues, the conditions the animals were kept in, the energy involved, the water used, the pollution emitted, the waste dumped...

The eco labels that we use as guides have become a kind of everyday ballot, and the choice of ethical goods a statement of intent for many people that says, 'these are the things I care about'. But to be effective, that caring needs to be accompanied by informed action.


As faith in the quality and safety of conventionally produced food declines, the popularity of organic food rises. There are six certification bodies in the UK. Of these, the oldest and largest is the Soil Association, certifying 80 per cent  of all organic produce in the UK. Its independent standards exceed the EU minimum organic standards. Of all the labels found on our food the organic label does more to guarantee that a product is healthy for people and for the planet.

What the label means
• Produced to a minimum EU organic standard
• Environmentally friendly
• No use of synthetic fertilisers
• Pesticides avoided
• Maintains soil fertility
• All animals are free range
• High animal welfare standards
• Antibiotics restricted
• No growth hormones
• No GM
• No irradiation
• Traceability
• Better for wildlife

What it doesn't mean
• Local
• Consistency in standards of certifying bodies
• Low air miles
• Sourced from small producers
• Minimal packaging



What do you think about when shopping? Comment here




Fair trade is a strategy for alleviating poverty by ensuring that producers receive a fair price for their goods, and support and education for sustainable farming practices. The Fairtrade label can be found on food such as coffee and bananas, as well as other products ranging from jeans and jewellery to flowers.

What the label means
• Producers get a fair price for their goods
• Extra income for farmers, artisans and agricultural workers
• Small farmers have access to world markets

What it doesn't mean
• Lower food miles
• Locally produced
• No animal cruelty
• Organic
• Minimal packaging
• Fair trade throughout the supply chain


A UK-based agricultural system that aims to increase wildlife species on farming land, without compromising farming sustainability. Under this scheme farmers must set aside 10 per cent of their land to create habitats for wildflowers, birds, insects and small animals. This creates a more environmentally-friendly product, but it is not the same as organic.

What the label means
• Preserves natural habitats
• Fewer pesticides
• Produced in the UK

What it doesn't mean
• Organic
• Pesticide-free
• Minimal packaging


The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label promotes sustainable fisheries by: maintaining and re-establishing healthy populations of targeted species; maintaining the integrity of ecosystems; developing and maintaining effective management systems, taking into account all relevant biological, technological, economic, social, environmental and commercial aspects; and complying with relevant local, national and international laws, standards and agreements.

What the label means
• Sustainably managed fisheries
• Attempts to re-establish endangered species
• Best practice in catching fish
• Respect of the marine environment

What it doesn't mean
• Sustainable practices used after the fish are caught
• Farmed fish excluded
• Fish are never taken from depleted stocks
• Fair access to certification for small-scale fishermen


The Freedom Food mark found on eggs, dairy, meat, poultry and salmon products means the animals have been reared, handled, transported and slaughtered to RSPCA standards. These include freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, distress, and the freedom to express normal behaviour. It applies to indoor and outdoor farming methods but is aspirational rather than strict. Certification will not be withheld if these standards are not fully met.

What the label means
• Welfare standards may be above minimum
• No battery cages for hens

What it doesn't mean
• Free range animals/outdoor access
• High environmental standards on farms
• No mutilations (tail docking or beak trimming)
• Animals fed natural diets
• Organic


This food industry certificate means that meat, vegetable, fruit, flour, sugar and dairy products have been produced to the minimum standards of welfare, environment and hygiene required by law. Use of the logo is granted by the Assured Food Standards, an agribusiness umbrella group representing the National Farmers Union, the Meat and Livestock Commission, Dairy UK and the British Retail Consortium. The British flag was added to the logo to denote products that have been ‘produced, processed and packed in the UK'.

What the label means
• Food produced to a minimum UK/European standard

What it doesn't mean
• Not intensively reared
• Animals treated well, given outdoor access
• No mutilations
• No GM
• No growth promoters
• Locally/UK grown ingredients
• Organic


An industry funded certification scheme that encourages efficient farming systems and good farming practice. It covers areas such as soil management and crop nutrition, pesticide usage, pollution control, waste management, water and energy efficiency and the protection of wildlife and landscape.

What the label means
• A minimum standard for environmental care

What it doesn't mean
• Organic
• Small scale
• No GM
• Animals not intensively reared
• Locally/UK produced

Ecologist readers can buy a copy of 'Stuffed', edited by Pat Thomas and published by Alastair Sawday, for £8.99 (rrp. £14.99) plus £2.99 p&p. Visit and use the code ECOSTF2010 when adding it to your basket. Or call 01275 395431 during office hours. Offer ends August 31, 2010.

Pat Thomas is a former editor of the Ecologist

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of gardening goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here

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