Food Transparency – More Than a Label

Organic, Non-GMO, Kosher, Rainforest Alliance, Halal, Fair Trade… Bird Friendly?  While these labels are nice to see on products and make us feel good when we buy them, they can get extremely confusing. We could do away with all of these certifications, and empower consumers to better navigate the food in their shopping carts in favor of just one thing; transparency.

What are Certifications Anyway?

There are over 464 certifications in 199 countries for food products according to the Ecolabel Index, ranging from Carbon-Neutral to Ocean Safe to Smithsonian-Certified Bird Friendly coffee. Even the certification consumers are most familiar with, Certified Organic, has 4 different levels of certification. Not to mention, a brand new “Regenerative Organic Certification” has entered the arena, with a pledge to go above and beyond regular organic certification to encompass soil health, fair worker treatment, and animal welfare. Sounds good, right?

The purpose of all these certifications is to inform shoppers about where their food is coming from and how it’s prepared. Certifications enable consumers to make more informed and responsible decisions about where their money goes and what they put into their bodies. However, with so many different certifications floating around, it’s becoming harder and harder for consumers to stay informed about their food.

Let’s Start with Breakfast

Take a stroll down the egg aisle, for example. Picking up a carton of eggs for breakfast doesn’t sound like a difficult task. But when you pick up a carton of eggs, you also pick up a carton emblazoned with a handful of certifications and claims, many of which are geared to make you think the eggs inside are the most incredible, earth-saving eggs you will ever eat.

 

But even if the eggs you pick up (and pay top dollar for) are cage-free, organic, and non-GMO, chances are high that the hens who laid them had a single foot of living space in an over-crowded warehouse somewhere – the minimum requirements for making those claims. If you take another step up the certification ladder and buy eggs that are free range, it could mean they had a whole two square feet of space with a tiny “pop-hole” to look out of. And, with the exception of pasture-raised eggs, cage-free eggs aren’t shown to have any better nutrient content than those without additional certifications anyway.

So, Do the Certifications Mean Anything?

Many shoppers use certifications to ensure the food they are eating, eggs or otherwise, is high-quality, healthy, and safe. But with the CDC estimating nearly 1 in 6 Americans get sick and 3,000 die from food borne diseases every year, it doesn’t seem like certifications are the solution to ensuring food is healthy or safe.

The current system isn’t exactly working for businesses either. A single food recall can cost a business $10 million on average. And they’re increasing at an alarming rate:

“Food products recalled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration skyrocketed 92.7 percent since 2012, and recalled pounds regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which largely oversees meat production, jumped 83.4 percent in the same period.” – Stericycle Recall

In addition to recalls, food fraud, defined as “fraudulent, intentional substitution or addition of a substance in a product for the purpose of increasing the apparent value of the product or reducing the cost of its production”, costs the food industry $10-15 billion a year. And oftentimes, small producers don’t have the time or money to get their products certified, though they meet qualifications for it.

With certifications, consumers and businesses put their trust in independent organizations and government agencies to ensure that their food is safe. But plenty slips through the cracks. Regulations change and certifications stop meaning what consumers think. Businesses lie about how they treat their animals to charge higher prices on certified products. The USDA has revokedonly a dozen organic certifications from American companies in the last 10 years.

 

Why is Food Traceability the Solution?

Food traceability is no fad – it’s going to be around for a long time. With recent technological advances, big-name companies are throwing resources into developing reliable ways to trace food through the supply chain. In 2016 IBM announced that they were partnering with 10 food giants including Wal-Mart, Unilever, Nestle, and Dole to use blockchain technology to create a transparent supply chain, and they’re currently testing this out on mangosand pork. For businesses, food traceability means less concerns about safety recalls and higher efficiency for their business.

Traceability isn’t just good for big business – small food producers can benefit, too. By using traceability to increase transparency for consumers purchasing their products, producers can build brand loyalty, connect more closely with their customers, and get better information on how their products are performing.

Food traceability can ease the minds of consumers, too. Shoppers picking up a product at the market and wondering “is this product fresh?” or “are these eggs really what I think they are?” could simply scan a code on the packaging and see the path the product took – from the farm to their table.

Transparency and Seeing the Future

The U.S. government agrees that transparency is the way to go, too – the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, one of the biggest sweeping acts of reform to hit U.S. food safety laws in years, will require food businesses to take accountability to prevent food safety issues.

Most food products will be required to be accompanied by Food Safety and Food Defense plans, detailing (among other things) how food safety concerns should be addressed for the product. It also includes traceability recommendations for businesses and requires the FDA to conduct pilot tests on food traceability for new regulations down the line. Food businesses have to be compliant with the new laws between 2018-2022, with more to come.

In the very near future, the government and consumers will demand transparency. While creating transparency and traceability in the food supply chain won’t fix every problem the food industry has, it will tackle a lot of them – from rapidly dropping consumer trust to the growing frequency and cost of food recalls and food fraud.

When companies are forced to be transparent, consumers will have the autonomy to vote with their wallets, using the power of capitalism to shake out the bad apples (and eggs) from the good.

 

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