Terms, Labels, and Certifications – What Do They All Mean?

March 10, 2005

Walking around the farmers’ market, you hear and see countless descriptions of the food being sold. From the farmer, farm banner, price sign, and other shoppers, come many ways of explaining flavor, texture, growing practices, and region. While some claims and labels have obvious meaning (sweet, fresh, field-grown) others are not so evident (Certified Producer, CCOF grower, biodynamic, free-range). This week, we delve into the meaning behind terms and labels seen at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Let’s start with the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market itself, a California Certified Farmers’ Market. This means we are a location certified by the Agricultural Commissioner of San Francisco where only California Certified Producers sell agricultural products directly to consumers. All of the farmers who sell at our market are certified as producers by the counties in which they grow. Each county requires the submission of a production list complete with crop types, number of acres, location, estimated harvest and harvest season. From this, a Producer’s Certificate is issued and the county Agricultural Inspector visits the farm during production to confirm that the farmer is growing what they claim to be. It is a farmers’ market manager’s job to ensure that each producer displays their certificate and sells only what appears on that document. There is also a non-certified, adjunct portion of our market in which breads, prepared foods, and non-farmstead cheeses and preserves are sold.

Beyond being certified as growers, many of our farmers hold additional certifications that indicate their adherence to specific environmental or social standards. The most popular of these “eco-labels” is, of course, organic. Organic food, as defined by the USDA, is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. As of 2002, all produce sold as “organic” must be certified. Farms are certified organic by third-party entities that require the submission of an organic system plan, and who inspect the farm to verify that organic practices are being complied with. Each of these certification agencies is accredited by the USDA and ensures that farmers are adhering to the rules set forth in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. Although every agency has the same organic standards, farmers choose one over another because of cost, region (Marin Organic only certifies in Marin) or additional services that the certifier offers (California Certified Organic Farmers, CCOF, also offers marketing support and assistance). Farmers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market are certified organic by at least eight different agencies to meet their various needs.

A number of farmers in the market whose operations would easily qualify for organic certification choose not to pursue it. Some because of cost and bureaucracy, others because they have direct relationships with their customers and don’t feel the need for a third party to verify their practices. A recent article in the East Bay Express about Knoll Farms explained their decision to become un-certified. The term “organic” does not imply anything about size, diversity, or distribution, so a very small, integrated, diverse farm is as “organic” (though obviously not as sustainable) as a thousand-acre monocrop that is being grown according federal standards. Not wanting to share a category with large industrial farms that use organic practices, the Knolls developed their own label to describe their food and farming methods. Taken from the French term, terrior, which roughly translates to “the essence of place,” the Knolls use the word “Tairwa” to describe their ecological, “organismic” approach to farming, and the amazing food that they produce.

Other labels include a Biodynamic certification called Demeter (The Apple Farm), and a label established by United Farm Workers that indicates the use of only union labor (Swanton Berry Farm). A number of general terms are also used to describe farming practices that have no standard meaning – they are mostly unregulated terms that can be used freely by whomever wishes to use them:

Natural – “Natural” meat and poultry must not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. When used on any other products, “natural”, and “all-natural” don’t necessarily imply the use of organic or ecologically-grown ingredients.

Pesticide-free – Some farmers avoid the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides but may use some conventional farming techniques such as the application of synthetic fertilizers.

Grass-fed – “Grass-fed” implies that the diet of animals consists of fresh pasture during the growing season and stored grasses during winter months. Grass-feeding is used with ruminant animals such as goats, sheep, bison, and cattle.

Free-range – “Free range” (or free roaming) implies that a meat or poultry product comes from an animal that was raised in the open air or was free to roam. The term “free range” is only regulated by the USDA for use on meat and poultry products. USDA requires that birds have been given access to the outdoors but for an undetermined period each day.

Although all of these terms and labels are important to be familiar with, nothing can teach you more than talking with the people who grow your food, building trust in them, and even visiting their farms.

To learn more about eco-labels, visit www.ecolabels.org.

See you at the market!