Shoppers are demanding higher quality standards in the products they buy. For example, in the food and beverage industry, shoppers require various medical, nutritional, cultural, environmental and social production standards. Brands choose from a variety of label claims to target consumers with singular demands or layer up on claims for those who seek products following several criteria—a kosher, gluten-free, organic and fair trade energy bar, for example. In a grocery landscape, how do shopper determines which statements are true? As consumers have become more informed about the side effects of modern food production, there has been a palpable drive to provide authenticity behind a claim. This creates an opportunity for third-party certifications to provide improved systems of transparency and lend legitimacy to label claims.
Trust in a certification
In lieu of government action, third-party certifications created from private voluntary standards can fill in as informative markers for consumers. For example, the Non-GMO Project and Fair Trade USA not only set standards where there is no federal oversight, but they also enlist non-stakeholder entities to verify their standards are being met while remaining removed from the evaluation process. Additionally, many third-party certifiers institute a public comment or consumer-driven consultation period to incorporate feedback and critique to shape standards. This method helps build trust among manufacturers who use these claims and among consumers who believe in them.
The USDA National Organic Program is an exception to the typical private third-party certification because it is a federally regulated set of standards and processes. Growers, manufacturers and businesses choosing to participate in the National Organic Program are subject to legal action if criteria are violated. Third-party auditors can be seen as enforcers of organic laws. Once considered a fringe sustainable agriculture movement, the concept of “organic," under the National Organic Program, has become one of the most rigorously regulated third-party certification processes, even working with other internationally mandated organic programs in the EU, Japan, Canada and South Korea.
The long road to establishing a federal organic program gained momentum after the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring" in 1962—the environmental movement’s evidence of policies gone awry. Carson argued that post-war federal policies calling for super-sized farms and industrialized agriculture grossly underestimated the ecological side effects of pesticide applications. Carson cautioned that DDT and other pesticides led to loss of species, habitat and clean water, which was reason enough to push organic and ecological agriculture into the forefront of public discussion.
Response to the warnings of “Silent Spring" can be seen in California’s early adoption of sustainable farming. By 1973, the Certified California Organic Farmers was formed as one of the first certification bodies instrumental in codifying organic standards. Eventually, their efforts contributed to the 1990 California Organic Foods Act, as well as the Organic Foods Production Act of the 1990 United States Farm Bill. Initially, the standards allowed for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation and sewage sludge to be used in organic production, but facing enormous criticisms from the organic community, these provisions were removed from the Final Rule in 2002. The involvement of consumer advocacy to shape standards is a process worth noting. Industry analysts looking at macro food system movements and theories tend to respect the enormous amount of legwork behind the National Organic Program.
Non-GMO project verification
There is prevailing belief that GMOs are a technological solution to improve both crop durability and yield in large-scale monoculture operations. However, many critics argue GMOs have only exacerbated the problem of commodity farming, contending monoculture farms growing GMO crops leads to pesticide-resistant super weeds, excessive pesticide applications, cross-contamination of seeds, etc. While consumers have been advocating for federal and state GMO labeling policies as a means of transparency, there have been limited wins. Founded in 2005, the Non-GMO Project has stepped in. It not only promotes transparency by distinguishing GMO-free products with a noticeable label, but also educates consumers and manufacturers on GMO trends. This is a mutual relationship, as in turn, the Non-GMO Project utilizes a robust public comment and consultation period to provide feedback and critique of new standards, which are ratified annually. It should be noted that many food system analysts applaud brands using both organic and Non-GMO Project verification—a gold standard of improved agricultural sustainability.
Certifications: The voice of consumers–creating change
Any well-vetted third-party certification is relevant in the marketplace. Due to consumer awareness of various diet trends, such as paleo, vegan, and halal, whose criteria might not be as highly politicized, the use of third-party certifications is important in building consumer confidence. There is a sense of caution that too many certification programs may crowd the natural product landscape. However, as an industry, we are good at navigating self-regulation: we know the food system is far from fixed, and some federal policies lag behind consumer demands. The power of consumer-supported certifications continues. A great example of consumer-powered change is seen in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers 2014 release of the Fair Food Program label, which came in direct response to a neglected component of U.S. food production—the rights of domestic agricultural workers. Third-party certifications are an increasingly important component of our industry, and they help to further innovate standards and provide transparency in process and application of those standards.
Amanda Hartt is the manager of policy, partner and public relations at SPINS. She is a research professional specializing in food policy, nutrition, sustainability and ethical sourcing. With more than 10 years of experience in economic research, on-the-ground work as a Peace Corps Volunteer and academic study of global supply chains, Hartt brings a macro perspective to synthesizing food system dynamics. She has a master’s degree in food policy from City University London, which is complemented by work experience in the supply chain at the supermarket level.