It's hard to be a consumer. Even the smart ones can have trouble making sense of product claims and labels. As an objective source of information and a longtime shoppers' advocate, Consumers Union occupies an important niche.
It's also a unique position, since most consumer-friendly businesses and organizations are influenced by company agendas or outside interests. Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, does not accept outside advertising or free test samples. The organization's national testing and research center in Yonkers is the biggest nonprofit educational and consumer product testing facility in the world. CU operates with a staff of more than 500 people throughout the United States.
Helping consumers make smart food choices has always been a focus. In 1936, CU looked into Strontium 90, a radioactive substance found in milk; in 2006, CU gave consumers the lowdown on organic products, identifying specific foods that are worth the premium price, as well as foods that don't merit the extra money.
The group maintains a number of popular, consumer-oriented websites. Greenerchoices.org serves as a guide to environmentally friendly products, and includes coverage of the mercury-in-tuna debate. Eco-labels.org is a guide to environmental labels, such as USDA Certified Organic, Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance. Greenerchoices.org gets 130,000 visitors per month, while eco-labels.org attracts 50,000 visitors each month, said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst for Consumers Union. CU also operates notinmyfood.org, which is focused on food safety advocacy and legislation.
“Our goal is to serve as an unbiased informant,” Rangan said.
CU's food tests are broad in scope, rigorous and expensive. The organization has been known to spend more than $50,000 to conduct a test, Rangan said. The group sampled more than 800 packages of ground beef and chicken for a report on food irradiation. Testers purchase products the same way consumers would.
“Very few people like us out there have the breadth and ability to do the tests,” Rangan said.