Urvashi Rangan,
Consumers Union.

What do you think are the primary technical obstacles to a mandatory lifecycle eco-label system, and might you suggest any strategies to overcome the political roadblocks to developing such a system in the U.S.?    — Philip White, San Francisco, Calif.

You bring up a few important issues along the continuum of good eco-labeling. Labels required by the government are certainly one way of instituting better environmental practices. Of course, here in the U.S. it is extremely difficult to change an entire conventional industry practice from the top down. Even voluntary label programs administered by the government come with bureaucratic challenges. Many innovative labels have begun at the private level (there are several examples of private, independent label programs) such as the “certified humane” label or the “certified fair trade” label. Organic labeling programs began in the private sector and after 20-plus years, became consolidated into a government-based national program. These individual labels provide incentives to any conventional industry to improve certain practices. This gradual approach has been effective in moving conventional practices toward sustainability.

“Life cycle analysis” — as a label — is not well understood by the public. “Sustainable” is an equally vague term for most consumers. And while these are incredible, important principles that need to be incorporated within any labeling program, I don’t think these overarching terms as labels — where one size fits all — is possible or practical at this time. Discreet, meaningful labels can be far more effective in helping consumers make better purchasing decisions, since specific components of production can be communicated more easily. For example, coffee labeled as “organic,” “fair trade,” and “bird friendly” (all certified and meaningful labels) can be more clearly understood than a label that says “sustainable.” And while sustainability principles guide each of these labeling programs, a consumer will likely not be able to discern all of the characteristics included in coffee labeled as “sustainable” or “life cycle analysis.” It is a great concept in theory but may not make sense practically.

Consumers need to know at the point of purchase what products are environmentally friendly or harmful. Could we push for huge chain stores to have a required labeling on the price markers, such as green for certified earth-friendly and red for not?    — Lara Miranda, Emeryville, Calif.

It certainly would be good to help educate consumers at the point of purchase. You might find it interesting to know that in some supermarkets in Europe, consumers can scan a meat barcode at a store kiosk and receive an incredible amount of information about the original animal, where it was raised, how it was produced, and even its name! I think your suggestion is a very interesting one. Whether retail outlets would take on the task is a big question, but certainly some progressive stores may bite on the idea. Thanks for the thought.

What is the biggest misconception about animal-raising practices, one of which all consumers should be made aware (such as “free-range” chickens not really being free, etc.)?    — Cristy Williamson, Palmdale, Calif.

The “natural” label on meat (and other products) is perhaps one of the most misleading labels to consumers. It does not necessarily have anything to do with how the animal was raised or what it ate. It does not mean the animal had a diet free of daily antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, steroids, pesticides, heavy metals, or animal byproducts. It does not mean the animal was raised in a natural environment. For a list of eco-labels on meat and what they do or don’t mean, visit the “Report Card” box on the homepage of Eco-labels.org and select “meat” from the product category.

If you were to put together a list of typical grocery and household products that represent the best of ecological choices, what would they be?    — Carolyn Poissant, Reno, Nev.

Unfortunately, we don’t provide brand names in the eco-labels site. Since this is a grant-funded public-service site and resources are limited, we are not able to maintain that kind of list. I would encourage you to spend some time perusing the eco-labels site for the meaning of labels on the types of products you need.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give that will help me to better explain to people why one should be willing to spend more for organic groceries?    — Sarah Devaney, Ann Arbor, Mich.

It is difficult to boil down all of the standards behind the organic label on most food products. I have found that in order to effectively communicate the value of a more environmentally sound production system (or label program), it is important to provide the context — that is, what is being done in conventional production (e.g., using municipal sewage sludge, chicken poop in feed, antibiotics every day, heavy metals like arsenic, pesticides, and more) that isn’t being done in organic. Sometimes less really is more (and less yield means higher cost). Take a look at an article we wrote on the egg production system in the U.S. in April 2002. It may help you frame your reasoning.

Do you ever see a day when fast-food joints will offer organic food? Or is that a complete oxymoron?    — Sarah Devaney, Ann Arbor, Mich.

I have seen glimmers here and there of organic food being carried in fast-food outlets but certainly nothing mainstream. Stonyfield Farms started an organic fast-foodish restaurant called O’Naturals, which is worth checking out. It is certainly not oxymoronic for conventional companies to go organic. In fact, General Mills, Kraft, and others are already getting on board and carrying organic lines of food. Consumer demand really does have a huge effect on what companies will do. I would not be surprised to see organic items being carried in fast-food chains in the near future.

Sometimes because of paperwork, politics, costs, lack of time, or all of the above, farmers choose not to be certified organic. Do you feel there is an easier way toward organic certification? What is the best advice you can give a farmer in this situation?    — Steve Hoad, Windsor, Maine

It is true that the cost and paperwork of organic certification can seem overwhelming, especially to very small-scale farms. There is a federal program to help offset the cost of certification called “certification cost share” that is administered through each state’s department of agriculture (a farmer is eligible to receive 75 percent of the certification cost — up to $500 — to offset costs). Your local certifier may also be able to help you; in Maine, that would be Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture provides this and other kinds of information to its members.

I have read that as a result of a complaint brought against the U.S. by the government of Mexico (under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the precursor to the WTO), the so-called “dolphin safe” label on tuna cans has become essentially meaningless because enforcement mechanisms are so weak. Is this true? In general, what is the WTO’s position on eco-labeling?    — Peter Walker, Eugene, Ore.

The GATT case changed the standard behind the dolphin-safe label from one that prohibited the use of purse seine nets (large nets with drawstrings at the edge that are dropped flat in the water and then pulled up like a drawstring purse that traps the tuna as well as other fish, sometimes dolphins) to a standard that does allow their use. Many groups believe that is a real rollback in the standard. I’m not an expert on WTO policy, but I know that the trade barrier issue is one that is important to the WTO, and labels are sometimes lumped into that concern.