According to a recent Tufts University report written by professors Kathleen Merrigan and William Lockeretz, ecolabels, which are used to indicate that a food has been produced in a way that is considered environmentally friendly, are tapping into a growing consumer trend.
"Consumers are driving these labels," professor Merrigan told FoodNavigator-USA.
"Sure, some of them are inspired by producers, such as grass-fed beef, as a way to differentiate their products and charge a premium. But it only works because they know there is consumer demand."
However, better regulation is required in order to solidify the trust between consumers and manufacturers. Merrigan says that although the Federal Trade Commission has nominal oversight, it has not, despite rhetoric on its website, taken any action in this area.
"There should be some place for consumers in the federal government to expose blatant fraudulent claims on food products in order to have the government pressure manufacturers to alter their labels," she said.
Merrigan also notes that there are quite a few varieties of ecolabels out there at the moment. "So many, in fact, that consumers are on the verge of confusion with competing eco-label claims.
"Oftentimes I send consumers to Consumer Union's website where they post an evaluation page on all the major eco-labels sold in US markets."
The food industry therefore needs to get its house in order if it is to take full advantage of the potential in ecolabels. The study, written by Merrigan in conjunction with professor Lockeretz, points out that the organic sector has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent for the past decade, and that ecolabels could soon move into the mainstream.
Indeed according to the Organic Trade Association, the US organic food market is projected to reach $31 billion by 2007, compared to $23 billion in 2002.
And according to a recent report written by Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, about 50 per cent of US consumers are influenced by environmental considerations. Over half want to see labels as a key source of information.
There are other perceived advantages. "The practices required to earn an ecolabel may focus on environmental impacts but the accompanying social criteria associated with these labels can, for many consumers, enhance the overall taste of the food," note Lockeretz and Merrigan.
"Consumers don't just taste food, they experience it and knowing a product came from a food system that treats farmers well may well enhance its flavor."
Lockeretz and Merrigan therefore argue that a credible ecolabel must be based on transparent, meaningful, and verifiable standards, be independently certified by a third party to ensure those standards are met and be certified by an accredited certifier to ensure the certifier is up to the task.
"As there is no meaningful federal oversight of ecolabels, other than the congressionally mandated USDA Organic Program, the burden is on private ecolabel programs," said Merrigan.
But despite this, Merrigan and Lockeretz conclude that ecolabels are at least a good starting point for customers eager to support environmentally responsible food production.