Certified Foods: Separating Quality from Hype

Simple Feeding Suggestions

Measuring the usefulness of food certification.

Jason Clay, Ph.D. | Vice President for Conservation Innovation | World Wildlife Fund (WWF) | Washington D.C.

Certified USDA organic. Certified non-GMO. Certified according to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). As consumers, we often find such labels stamped on the products we buy or in the literature we read about various brands. We assume it means these products have passed a stringent set of standards and are thus somehow better—more nutritious, more wholesome, more environmentally friendly, more safe, more something, and thus worth the higher price tag that often accompanies such a distinction.

All certification programs, however, are not equally effective. When we look at the labels, sometimes it's difficult to tell what exactly is being certified. Is it an improved production process, a reduced environmental impact, a lack of pesticide residues, or higher levels of nutrition? 

In short, an effective certification program will outline specific goals and create measurable standards to make it possible to reach those goals. An ineffective program may talk about lofty objectives, but will often fail to be specific in its directives or standards and thus fall short of actually implementing its ideals. To discriminate between the two types, consumers need to look further than what they see on the package.

Certification Means Adherence to Standards
Certification of products indicates they have been produced according to specific standards. For example, an apple may be certified organic, meaning it was grown with processes compatible with a set of approved organic standards. In general, certification programs are based on a modest set of principles (often only 10 or 12) that identify which results a program is attempting to influence. Principles can be as simple as to obey the law, increase the efficiency of natural resource use, or reduce the use of something deemed as undesirable. Principles are then focused on particular criteria such as complying with laws like labor or land rights, resource-use efficiency (e.g. water) or specific undesirable inputs (e.g. pesticides). 

Once a principle and criterion have been established, they must be translated into one or more specific standards. If the criterion relates to pesticides used, then the standard might suggest the total quantity allowed, the level of toxicity allowed or even a "do not use" list. Is the standard based on evidence of continuous improvement, a 50% reduction of use, or the total toxicity of agrochemicals used? What is the time frame in which these standards must be met? These are the issues specified in good standards.

There are now thousands of different certification programs in the food industry. They may require:

  • the adoption of specific production practices;
  • continuous improvement with whatever practice is being used;
  • producers to achieve specific, measurable performance levels; 
  • that a product is produced in a specific place; or
  • that producers and workers are treated well. 

Often certification programs are based on some combination of these factors.

Who Certifies the Product?
There are first, second and third party certification programs. In first-party programs, producers sign statements that they have produced their product in a certain way, following a program's guidelines. In second-party programs, a company (often the buyer or its representative) will certify that the producer has adhered to a set of guidelines. Third-party certification, which is generally seen as the most credible, is where an independent entity that has no vested interest in the outcome undertakes an audit to determine if the producer has met all the standards. (See sidebar for some of the best-known certification programs.)

Reducing Environmental Impact with Ecolabels
Ecolabels are a subset of food certification systems. They are intended to assure consumers that products have been produced with reduced environmental impacts. They are often thought of as recent inventions of environmental organizations, but actually have existed in agriculture since at least the 1920s, with the first originating in France, Germany and Italy.1

Ecolabels have increased tremendously both in number and in the volume of traded product over the last 15-20 years. The German Blue Angel label was launched in 1978, the Canadian Environmental Choice Program was introduced in 1988, while the EcoMark in Japan, the White Swan label in Nordic Countries, and the Green Seal in the United States were all introduced in 1989.

Organic and bio-dynamic products are often assumed to be ecolabels, but neither is actually focused on environmental impact. Organic and biodynamic certification programs specify production processes and methods (including lists of items that are prohibited or permitted for use), but do not require any specific environmental result much less proof of improvement over time.

A typical claim of an ecolabel for agricultural products would be the nonuse of certain inputs like pesticides, the adherence to recommended production practices, and traceability (from product back to the farm where it was grown). In addition, ecolabels are increasingly being asked to address other issues such as animal welfare, biologically engineered or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and packaging. Many ecolabels also address social issues such as social welfare, labor standards and fair trade (e.g. whether producers and laborers have been fairly compensated). To be credible, however, ecolabels must be able to convince consumers not only that traditional production practices pose unacceptable risks to the environment, but also that the ecolabeled product reduces impacts to more acceptable levels—and that it's worth a higher price.

Numerous Programs Can Be Confusing
Over time, increased confusion has led both consumers and those in the food industry to distrust whether ecolabels really reduce environmental impacts. Many now question what ecolabels mean or what the differences are among the different programs. In a recent interview, Fonz Schmidt, VP of Ahold (owner of U.S. Food Services, Giant, and Stop & Shop to name but a few), remarked that his company is often asked to put signs in stores that explain and rank the different ecolabels. Much of the distrust stems from a lack of information, but in many cases, it comes from the fact that most ecolabels do not measure most of their claims. Of those that do have measurable standards, it's not clear if they are meaningful from an environmental perspective. 

For producers, there is also considerable confusion and resentment about the different systems and the fact that each requires different certifiers, methods of record keeping, etc. It is onerous for producers to meet different certification requirements imposed by different labels and countries. For example, a producer with only two-to-three acres of coffee may now have to foot the bill to be certified by two or three different certifiers, knowing full well that the three certification programs cannot guarantee that he will sell even half of the coffee that has been certified. 

There is additional confusion over just what exactly is being certified. Is it a production process? A reduced environmental impact? Or, is it the overall quality (e.g. freshness, levels of nutrition, lack of residues) of the final product? While one might assume that consumers would be most interested in the latter, not a single certification program anywhere in the world actually certifies product quality. In short, no certification program actually stands behind the product—only the way in which it was produced.

Finally, there is an overall perception that certified foods are too expensive, the recurring question being is the product worth the premium price? If so, how much of that premium actually makes its way back to the original producers?

Consumers Turning to Certification for Safety
Global market trends affect the overall viability of ecolabels. Currently, there is tremendous consolidation and vertical integration within and between most segments of market chains where ecolabels are at play. The number of grocery store chains has declined and those that remain have gotten much bigger and are operating in many more countries. Some 35 percent of grocery store sales are now private-labeled products made specifically for that store. Similarly, the number of food manufacturers has declined while the size and market share of those remaining has increased. In addition, real prices to producers are declining, while dominant producers are increasing their market share through an overall increase in production scales and improved efficiency. 

Through 2000, many consumer markets for ecolabel products like coffee were either flat or declining. At this time, however, marketing of ecolabel products has become more sophisticated and alliances with major food industry companies have caused considerable growth in markets. Increased concerns about residues in food and food safety are creating more demand for certified products even if no certification program actually guarantees the reduction of food residues (much less their elimination) or overall food quality or safety. This is especially true in Europe but is also found in Japan, the United States, China and Brazil. 

For example, the introduction of genetically modified foods in Europe and the outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the United Kingdom contributed to increased consumer concerns about food safety (see sidebar "Major Food Safety Events," p. 10). This public interest has led to a strengthening of food monitoring programs and efforts to ease public concerns. (For example, European food manufacturers took labeled GM products off the market). In the United States, interest in food safety issues increased again after 9/11. However, the amount of money spent on inspecting food relative to its value has actually declined. This trend is likely to increase as budget deficits, at least in the U.S., further reduce funding for inspection. Some of the costs, at least for imported foods, are being shifted to countries and companies that export to countries like the U.S. 

Most people in the industry generally accept that in reality, the food people eat now is safer than in the past. However, even though there are more stringent regulations governing food safety than ever before,2 as consumers realize that even less of the food they eat is inspected, many are turning to independent certification and ecolabel programs, as well as looking to supermarkets to play an increasing role as watchdogs with regard to product safety and quality.

Good Ecolabels Have Measurable Standards
A "good" ecolabel has different characteristics depending on who is evaluating it. However, environmentally speaking, it should have measurable standards and should show quantitative rather than qualitative progress against established baseline performance data. This means that if soil erosion is an issue, an ecolabel should show reduced erosion since a producer joined the program. If the main impact is pesticides, then a good ecolabel should show an overall reduction in total pesticide use and/or toxicity since a producer joined the program. 

In addition, an ecolabel should evaluate larger cumulative ecosystem or landscape impacts as well as on-farm operations. Such labels should address overall water use as well as the quality of water effluents. They should examine the toxicity of both natural and synthetic chemical inputs to the environment (not just assess their potential impact on human health). Soil health and vitality could be measured as well as overall carbon content. A good ecolabel might address energy consumption as well as the impacts of production on biodiversity. In the case of biodiversity, the impact of production on soil organisms and communities should be addressed. 

The methods and measures or metrics to evaluate ecolabels have not been agreed on widely at this time. Over the next few years, common ground will have to be found regarding the cost versus the benefit of such monitoring and the claims that might be based on them. Work done by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the University of Wisconsin, WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the International Crane Foundation, Protected Harvest, and several researchers, indicates the development of such a robust set of standards for a single commodity is likely to cost from $250,000 to $1 million or more. There are also likely to be additional costs associated with adding new standards for water or soil health or adapting the standards to new locations and producers. Protected Harvest, a U.S.-based food certification program that requires producers to achieve measurable results for key impacts, is working with growers in California to develop standards for wine grapes, almonds, stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots), and strawberries and in Michigan with growers of different vegetables such as peas, carrots and string beans.

Addressing Social Issues
Increasingly, consumers not only want products that are nutritious and will not hurt them, they also want the food industry to ensure that food is produced in a way that is healthy not only for the planet today and the people that produce it, but also for future generations. Given this perspective, consumers of affluence are likely to insist that the food they eat is produced in ways that support sustainable livelihoods as well as sustainable societies for all those in the food industry. Several European food retailers are already attempting to determine what this means for them, their manufacturers, suppliers and producers. 

One of the most important issues, however, that will force innovation with regard to social issues is the overall decline in commodity prices. Declining commodity prices, in the absence of any price premium for differentiating the product, will force all but the lowest price producers to figure out ways to cut costs. The question will be whether ecolabels actually support more socially sustainable production practices in addition to reducing environmental impacts. There are a number of equity and scale issues that could be associated with ecolabels. In a global context of declining commodity prices, today's price norm will be tomorrow's premium. Ecolabels may be one way that producers will be able to forestall the overall decline in food commodity prices. But, while they may be able to slow the decline, they will not be able to reverse it. At most, they are buying time vis-à-vis their competitors. 

Within this context there is a trend toward larger certified production and manufacturing units. As this occurs, the cost of certification and other barriers for small producers will be accentuated, as will other scale trends. This has already happened with organic production in the United States where production and ownership among organic producers is more concentrated than in conventional agriculture. In all likelihood, producers, processors, and others will probably explore a wide range of technology options to reduce social impacts rather than just adopt any approaches that have been developed by others. They will need to devise new approaches to scale, such as joint ventures, employee stock option plans (ESOPs), worker incentive and bonus programs, and other non-financial benefits packages. In addition, alternatives to income and employee-based incentives can be developed, such as other forms of conservation or environmental service payments.

Attributes of Reputable Programs
Since most products are subject to a number of different certification and ecolabel programs, it is important for consumers and others to understand how they can be compared to show strengths and weaknesses of each. Only then can informed decisions be made about which are "better." "Better" will ultimately be defined in each instance by what one wants to accomplish through certification and ecolabels.

At a minimum, one would expect each certification or ecolabel program to contain or take into consideration the following issues and compare them accordingly. Do the programs have: 

  • clearly stated principles and criteria; 
  • measurable standards;
  • standards created through broad public consultation, with no single group dominating; 
  • transparent standards posted for the public to see and comment upon;
  • principles, criteria and standards based on sound science;
  • third-party certification;
  • chain-of-custody or traceability; 
  • standards which will improve as science, technology and markets allow;
  • and provisions for obeying the law?


In addition, some of the more qualitative issues that can be used to compare different certification or ecolabel programs include: 

  • Proscriptive: Does the program require producers to use specific practices assuming that they will yield desired results? 
  • Results oriented: Does the program state the result it wants and allow producers to find the best way for each of them to achieve it?
  • Membership: Does the program allow all producers a chance to qualify if they are interested or is it skewed toward a certain class of producer?
  • Scope: Does the program attempt to address all environmental impacts or only the most significant ones?
  • Social issues: Does the program address worker issues, fair trade issues, and impacts of production on a local community?
  • Consumer issues: Does the program measure product quality; does it measure or test for residues?
  • Costs: Is there an explicit attempt to understand and reduce the costs of being part of the program?
  • Standards: Can they be used by investors to reduce risks or governments to regulate or permit production based on known better practices?

Improving Accountability
The way forward for credible food certification will require that ecolabels are targeted and meaningful. In the future, if ecolabels are required to live up to their claims (i.e. if there is accountability), successful ones will probably limit the number of impacts they attempt to address. Work with producers on a wide range of products suggests that while a number of activities have impacts, only 8 to 10 cause the vast majority of impacts that need to be addressed. For each main one, a principle, one or more criteria, and measurable standards should be developed through a broad consultation process that includes widespread stakeholder input. 

While the principles and criteria should be applicable globally, measurable standards need to be adapted to the particular realities of local producers and even reflect the realities of the different products produced. The standards developed for each product need to be evaluated in order to understand their financial implications for producers. In general, standards should encourage specific results rather than tell producers exactly how the results have to be achieved. In addition to the principles, criteria and standards, chain-of-custody guidelines will have to be developed along with third-party certification. 

Finally, the most successful ecolabel programs are those that will be able to develop synergies that send signals to producers from multiple sources. One way to do this will be to adapt principles, criteria, and standards for investors, insurers, and regulators. If investors or insurers see that better practices, for example, reduce costs and risks, then they will be more likely to require them of those who seek investments. Similarly, if governments see that better practices used by buyers and the screens used by investors reduce impacts without being onerous to producers, they could begin to incorporate them into regulations, licenses and permits. Mutually reinforcing signals will tend to encourage producers to adopt certification standards much more quickly. 

The Future of Food Certification
There has been tremendous development of ecolabels, and the combined market share is growing at a phenomenal rate. Unfortunately, much of the growth has been based on support from donors rather than the development of financially viable or credible ecolabel programs that pay for themselves. It is now time to take a close look at the lessons that have been learned from the development of ecolabels over the past decade and reflect on what it will take to make them sustainable. The long-term credibility of certification systems will depend on their transparency as well as on the degree to which they assess and reduce the chief impacts of production and give consumers confidence that they are getting what they are paying for. They will also depend, ultimately, on their ability to move beyond specialized markets to tipping entire industries.

The Oromo people of Ethiopia have a saying—you can't wake a person who is pretending to sleep. There is a perception, at least some of which is based on legitimate and recurring issues, that the food we eat is not as safe as it could be and that governments, while able to ensure the basic quality of food, are not able to guarantee standards that many consumers and food companies believe are not only possible but desirable. Credible ecolabel and certification programs can help provide a higher level of standards. If successful, such standards can raise the bar of what is required of food producers in the future.

The Future of Certification: Where are we Going from Here?
In the struggle to create and enforce certification and ecolabels that are meaningful and helpful to the everyday consumer, several agencies and organizations have contributed a large amount of time and resources. Yet more need to get involved to ensure a positive outcome. For example, the role of governments, corporations, the market and the public remain to be seen. If we are to create a more healthy, environmentally sound and cost-effective product, how will we define the roles of these various groups, and how can we ensure that they're resources are used wisely for the best result? 

The Role of Government?
Governments, particularly in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, do not believe that private entities (whether non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, or private sector companies) should be proclaiming what is "certified." At the very least, if such groups take this work forward, then governments will have to step in to ensure that there is truth in advertising, i.e. that the programs can back up their claims.

Who's Making the Decisions?
It is now possible to make side-by-side comparisons of a wide range of labels for the same products. This type of comparison is becoming more common just as large buyers, manufacturers and retailers are beginning to develop their own product screens. As large buyers become involved, the issue is not one of convincing millions of consumers to buy products. Increasingly, it is only 300-500 product purchasers in the food industry that will evaluate standards and decide if they are sufficient to reduce their risk as product purchasers. The standards of less than a dozen companies are likely to become the global norms in the next 20 years. For example, the policies of Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Ahold, Unilever, Kraft, Nestle, Danone, General Mills, and Sysco, to name but a few, are likely to set the tone for the food industry globally. If such entities wish to be credible, they will need to do so in a transparent way that involves other interested parties. 

The Search for Food Quality
Increased production efficiency and scale (through improved genetics, transport and storage, technology, management, and markets) have created what has come to be known as a "race to the bottom." For consumers, this means that food becomes cheaper, but for producers it means that they must either become increasingly efficient, convince their governments to support them, or cut corners to save money. Cutting corners tends to involve using practices that are not sustainable but that are cheaper than production practices that take a longer time frame into account. Ecolabels are intended to reward producers who adhere to production practices that may cost more but are seen to be more environmentally friendly over the long term. Proponents suggest that ecolabels have the potential to spur a "race to the top" by requiring producers to perform "beyond compliance," e.g. at performance levels that go well beyond what is required by law.

Dr. Jason Clay is an anthropologist who studied at Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and Cornell University. Since the early 1970s he has worked on human rights and environmental issues. In the 1980s, Dr. Clay was one of the inventors of green marketing. Through the Rainforest Marketing Program, he worked with some 200 companies and helped bring out hundreds of products including Rainforest Crunch with Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Clay is creating an aquaculture certification program, and he heads up work on agriculture and aquaculture in World Wildlife Fund in Washington D.C.


  1. Basu, A.K, N.H. Chau, and U. Grote, March 2004. On Export Rivalry and the Greening of Agriculture—The Role of Ecolabels. Unpublished paper.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Clay, J., 2004. World Agriculture and the Environment—A Commodity by Commodity Guide to Production and Impacts. Washington, D.C: Island Press.
  4. The World Bank, 2005. Food Safety and Agricultural Health Standards—Challenges for Developing Country Exports. Report No. 31207. Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Trade Unit and Agriculture and Rural Development Department. The World Bank. Washington, D.C. January 10.
  5. Clay, J., 2002. Ecolabels—Where are We Going? Keynote presentation at USDA/Tufts University conference on ecolabels.
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