Image of food labels
We live in a world awash with labels - which are most important to you?

Decoding the label – why food shopping with a conscience is worth the effort

6 March, 2012

Continued from page 1>>

Decoding the labels


As faith in the quality and safety of conventionally produced food has declined, the popularity of organic food has risen dramatically. The UK has six certification bodies in the UK. Of these, the oldest and largest is the Soil Association founded in 1946, which currently undertakes 80 per cent of all certification in the UK. Of all the current food labels, the organic label does more to guarantee food that is healthy for people and for planet.

What the label means

  • Produced to a minimum EU organic standard
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Higher animal welfare
  • Synthetic pesticide/fertiliser use severely restricted
  • Maintains soil fertility
  • Antibiotics restricted
  • No growth hormones
  • No GM crops/animal feed
  • No irradiation
  • Traceability

What it doesn’t mean

  • Locally grown/produced
  • Consistent standards between certifying bodies
  • Animals reared on all natural diets
  • Low air miles
  • Sourced from small producers
  • Minimal packaging


Fairtrade is a strategy for alleviating poverty by ensuring that producers receive a fair price for their goods and support and education for sustainable farming practices. The Fairtrade label can be found on a variety of goods from coffee and bananas to jeans, jewellery and flowers.

What the label means

  • Farmers get a fair and stable price for their products
  • Extra income for farmers and estate workers
  • Greater respect for the environment
  • Small farmers have access to world markets

What it doesn’t mean

  • Lower food miles
  • Locally produced
  • No animal cruelty
  • Organic
  • Minimal packaging
  • Fairtrade throughout product’s supply chain


A UK-based agricultural system, that aims to increase the number of wildlife species on farming land, without compromising farming sustainability. Under this scheme farmers must set aside 10 per cent of their land to create habitats for wildflowers, birds, insects and small animals. While indicative of a more environmentally-friendly product, it is not the same as organic.

What the label means

  • Preserves natural habitats
  • Fewer pesticides are used
  • Produced in the UK

What it doesn’t mean

  • Organic
  • Pesticide-free
  • Minimal packaging


Established in 1997 the MSC label aims to promote sustainable fishers by: maintaining and re-establishing healthy populations of targeted species; maintaining the integrity of ecosystems; developing and maintaining effective fisheries management systems, taking into account all relevant biological, technological, economic, social, environmental and commercial aspects; and  complying  with relevant local and national and international laws, standards and agreements.

What the label means

  • Sustainably managed fisheries
  • Efforts toward re-establishing endangered species
  • Best practice in catching fish
  • Respect of the marine environment

What it doesn’t mean

  • Sustainable practices after the fish are caught
  • Excludes farmed fish
  • Fish are never taken from depleted stocks
  • Fair access to certification for small scale fishermen


The Freedom Food mark found on eggs, dairy, meat, poultry and salmon products means the animals have been reared, handled, transported and slaughtered to RSPCA standards which include freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury or disease, fear and distress as well as the freedom to express normal behaviour. They apply to both indoor and outdoor farming methods but are aspirational rather than strict requirements. Certification won’t be withheld if these aspirations are not fully met. This means that in some cases Freedom Food standards is little better than the minimum legal requirements.

What the label means

  • Welfare standards may be above minimum requirements
  • No battery cages for hens

What it doesn’t mean

  • Free range animals/outdoor access
  • High environmental standards on farms
  • No mutilations (tail docking and beak trimming)
  • Animals fed natural diets
  • Organic


A food industry certificate that means that meat, vegetable, fruit, flour, sugar and dairy products have been produced to the minimum  standards of welfare, environmental, and hygiene required by law

Use of the logo is granted by Assured Food Standards, man agribusiness umbrella group representing the interests of the National Farmers union, the Meat and Livestock Commission, Dairy UK and the British Retail Consortium. In 2005 the British flag was added to the logo to denote products that have been “produced, processed and packed in the UK”.

What the label means

  • Food produced to a minimum UK/European standard

What it doesn’t mean

  • Not intensively reared
  • Animals treated well, given outdoor access
  • No mutilations
  • No GM feed/ crops
  • No growth promoters
  • Locally/UK produced
  • Organic


An industry funded certification scheme that aims to encourage efficient farming systems good farming practice and covers areas such as soil management and crop nutrition, pesticide usage, pollution control, waste management, water and energy efficiency and the protection of wildlife and landscape. LEAF standards fall somewhere between the minimum required by law and the high organic standards of the Soil Association.

What the label means

  • A minimum standard for environmental care

What it doesn’t mean

  • Organic
  • Small scale
  • No GM feed/crops
  • Animals not intensively reared
  • Locally/UK produced


Adapted from Stuffed: Positive Action to Prevent a Global Food Crisis by Pat Thomas. Available from the Soil Association here.