PORTLAND, Ore. -- As more supermarkets consider introducing eco-labeled product to entice environmentally sensitive shoppers, they might discover the need to help their customers -- and themselves -- decipher the significance of their importance in light of the new National Organic Standard.
"Up to now, it's been simple," said Scott Exo, program director of The Food Alliance here, referring to the organic category's leading role. "Eco-labels are [currently] injecting other issues into the mix, and that's bound to ruffle some feathers."
There are several primary distinctions, according to industry observers. While "organically certified" labels primarily assure consumers that no synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides are used in production, eco-labels take a broader outlook, valuing a producer's dedication to environmentally and socially responsible farming, they said.
It's a line of distinction that retailers will have to help consumers demarcate.
"It's not always easy to validate the claims or promises made by eco-labels without regulatory reliability," said Trudy Bialic, public affairs manager and publications editor for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, a seven-store cooperative. "Organics go a step further than most of the eco-labels, many of which don't carry the weight of certification. There's no standard playing field from one label to the other."
With eco-labels, sustainability of land and sea resources and treating one's employees fairly are often predominant considerations. This means that eco-labels often condone the use of some pesticides, knowing that other goals, such as rotating crops and preventing water pollution, are achieved.
"Organics is stringent on the things it measures, but TFA measures different things," Exo explained, using the hypothetical case of a certified organic farmer who uses no pesticides but makes his farm animals live under abusive or inhumane conditions. His colleague, Jim Ennis, program director, Midwest Food Alliance, St. Paul, Minn., concurred, giving another example of how farmers who may not be organically certified could nevertheless adhere to agricultural practices that enhance soil and water resources.
"Organics has more depth in certain areas, but its breadth has narrowed," Ennis said, noting that some environmental and social standards, such as farm pickers' working conditions, are no longer part of organic certification. Ennis, who considers organics to be a successful eco-label, suggested that this paring down on the organics side is a catalyst in the creation of more eco-labels.
"We hope to reduce consumer confusion due to the plethora of eco-labels by communicating to consumers what our standards are," Ennis said.
While the market is seeing dozens of eco-labels covering all food and nonfood categories, Exo estimated that only a small number of them have the scope and clout to set standards and verify compliance, educate consumers and stand behind the claims inherent on the label.
For example, TFA membership involves product inspection, successful completion of a questionnaire, submitting to spot inspections annually, and completing end-of-year reports, among other requirements.
"It all rests on the credentials of the certifying organization," Exo said. Ennis also underscored the need for a strong arm.
"In our focus group, we heard people wonder if eco-labels were just a marketing ploy," he said. "That's why it's so important to have strict standards that can hold up under public scrutiny." Exo and Ennis said their respective organizations work with scientists and pest management experts.
Retailers who might be confused about which eco-labels to support at the store level should look for a set of objective standards and have a third party inspect and certify that this food does meet these standards, Ennis said. That's the way, he added, to distinguish between "what's marketing and what's real."
PCC Natural Markets strongly supports local farmers and does stock TFA product, according to Bialic, who said she was in favor of "anything that takes us into sustainability, legitimacy and integrity." However, between eco-labels and organics, she said the store's greater allegiance was to organics.
"The profusion of eco-labeling absent any legal regulations makes it very different from organics' federal statutory authority where you have precise language," added PCC's nutrition education manager Goldie Caughlan, who said she does not mean to imply all eco-labels are not good or well-intentioned.
At Lamb's Garden Home Thriftway, a six-store, independent chain based here, produce manager Paul Widerburg sees no chasm between the two categories on his shelves.
"I stock them side by side; one doesn't interfere with the other," Widerburg said. He noted that, before he brought on TFA product four years ago, his store stocked organics in displays running 40 feet in length.
"We still sell a ton of it," he said, adding the retailer also stocks conventionally grown produce that he cuts down when season TFA items are plentiful.
But Widerburg bypasses controversy by educating consumers that organics and eco-labels are "two different entities." And, he says, customers like both. He added that some customers shop at the store because of TFA product, and others say TFA's goals are the reason they'd pay more money for those eco-label products.
Widerburg also dons TFA T-shirts and uses TFA signage and pamphlets, coupons and farmer-attended demos to let his customers know about increased merchandise choices. He also runs a TFA video in his department all day.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, is one retailer that had contemplated becoming, in a sense, its own eco-label when the company reportedly considered developing its own store line of less environmentally damaging -- but pesticide-containing -- produce. However, the chain decided to review the program after a backlash of opposition. Whole Foods declined to speak to SN about the matter.