As I walk down the aisles of a grocery store, the labels that catch my eye are the Non-Gmo Project, the USDA organic, and the Fair Trade labels. These labels allow consumers to assume that what they are buying is good for their health, responsibly sourced, and responsibly traded. The labels operate as enabling frameworks that measure the success of a product in terms of health or trade standards, but they measure only the product, and fall short in determining the how the food company performs overall in the context of the increasing environmental and social standards of the U.S. consumer. I think it is time to develop a standard label that takes a holistic approach to determining where food companies stand in relation to others.
The label could be based off of a rating system similar to LEED, where bronze, silver, gold, and platinum ratings differentiate the efficacy of their efforts, based on point totals. The standard should take in to account all aspects of the company’s operations. So the product is organic and responsibly sourced, but what impact do they have beyond their food product. Does the corporate office operate in a LEED certified building? Do they go beyond corporate social responsibility and make significant contributions to their communities? I love Newman’s Own products, because they taste great and they donate 100% of their after tax profits to charity; but does their manufacturing process also operate at a high standard. I assume that companies that make an effort to acquire Fair Trade, USDA Organic, and Non-Gmo labels, also make efforts to maintain high environmental and ethical standards within their operations and management, but I only speculate. Food companies should have the right to apply for and be rewarded for their full spectrum efforts in running their business, and not just for the quality of their product; health standards are only one part of the equation. Equally, consumers have the right to full transparency and trust in food companies that operate at high environmental and ethical standards, in addition to providing healthy food products for us, our friends, family, and kids.
The labels mentioned above should be not be overshadowed by this rating, but should be leveraged and used in the rating process. Other measurement systems should be leveraged as well, such as the Green Accounting system in the works, LEED ratings for building operations, and even CEO pay compared to employee pay should be taken in to account; as well as many other factors not mentioned. There should be differentiation between small, medium, large, and public companies. The operational nature of a small, local food company is a lot different than the complex operational network of a large conglomerate food company; the rating system should take this in to account and adjust the standards and calculations accordingly. In some ways, a holistic rating system may even be favorable to smaller companies, because a less complex supply chain and single office location, may allow for the necessary adjustments (for rating) to be made, simple and straightforward.
I think the food industry is poised to accommodate a universal rating system like this, plus it isn’t over regulation. Even in the beginning, I think new companies will have incentive and should be rewarded for their ability to address and adjust every facet of their business to function successfully in a culture that holds a high standard for not only the health and source of our food, but also the social and environmental impact we have as consumers and companies.
1: “Newman’s Own as Alternative Economics”, Engler, Mark : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-engler/newmans-own-as-alternativ_b_754063.html
2: “There are three potential problems with a social enterprise label for Europe”, Addarii, Filippo : https://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2012/oct/26/social-enterprise-label-europe
3: Fair Trade USA : http://fairtradeusa.org/
4: USDA Organic : https://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=organic-agriculture
5: Non-GMO Project: https://www.nongmoproject.org/