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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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A proliferation of food products with environmental labels are showing up on supermarket shelves. Host Steve Curwood talks with Los Angeles Times business reporter Melinda Fulmer about how consumers can use them.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Browse the aisles of your local grocery store these days, and you'll find products labeled "Eco-OK," "Protected Harvest," and "Bird Friendly." Eco-labels like these seem to be multiplying faster than you can say dolphin-safe, but exactly what do they mean? Melinda Fulmer joins me now. She's a business writer at the Los Angeles Times and has been looking into this proliferation of green-friendly labels. Melinda, what's behind this trend?

FULMER: Foodmakers see this as an opportunity to sell their products. They're appealing to consumers who don't have the time to volunteer or support the environmental movement in other ways. And for environmental groups, it's a way for them to try and get their message out and at the same time, in many cases, gain more funding.

CURWOOD: Okay. I'm looking now at a Nature Valley crunchy granola bar, right here in the studio. I'm not really allowed to bring food into the studio, so I hope my technical director isn't watching, but, it comes in a box that has the Nature Conservancy logo, the oak leaf, and they say that having their logo on the box of granola bars doesn't mean that they're endorsing these granola bars or evaluating them as organic or anything like that. They told us that their logo simply accompanies a statement that the Nature Valley Company is a proud supporter of their campaigns and that on the back of the box a consumer can learn more about a particular Nature Conservancy campaign.

What's wrong with a relationship like that, if anything?

FULMER: I don't think anything's wrong with it, but I think it can be a little confusing for shoppers. I mean, when you have a group like the Nature Conservancy putting its logo on kind of a wide range of products, everything from granola bars to beef products to potato chips, I think it could be a little confusing about what it actually means. There are just very different standards for each of those programs, and I'm not sure consumers understand exactly what they're getting every time, when they see that logo.

CURWOOD: And I understand that the Nature Conservancy is getting $115,000 from Nature Valley granola bars as part of this marketing partnership. Melinda, how much do you think these kind of eco-labels are a way for the food companies to cash in and the enviro-groups to cash in, versus real information to help consumers?

FULMER: Well, I think some of these labels are definitely just feel-good labels, but some of them have clear, verifiable standards and have made a difference. Dolphin-safe tuna, fair trade coffee, some of these things, they're clearly making a difference. There's some that are less than meaningful, and that's when basically when a foodmaker or a person that's selling a product develops its own standards and has nobody else to verify that it's meeting those standards or that it's doing what it says it's doing.

CURWOOD: Let's go over some of these labels now. Nutri-clean.

FULMER: Nutri-clean is program which offers consumers produce that has only trace amounts of pesticide residue, so it's supposed to come in somewhere between organic and conventional produce. In the stores, it's advertised as the finest produce available and laboratory tested, but yet it doesn't tell consumers what this means, what is it tested for, that kind of thing. And there's no other information there for shoppers to take a look at and get more information.

CURWOOD: Free range eggs.

FULMER: That claim is not monitored by anybody. There's just no guidelines in place, so it's just something that egg producers are putting on the label.

CURWOOD: So if somebody opens the barn door for a minute and calls that the range, the eggs are free range.

FULMER: Yeah, well, not even that. I mean, there's no guidelines in place for that. Now, with free range chicken there's no set amount--even though there are guidelines in place for that, there's no set amount of time chickens are supposed to have access to the outdoors for. I mean, it could be five minutes a day. So, even with government regulations in place, it may not be exactly what you think.

CURWOOD: Melinda, there's a phrase, caveat emptor. It's Latin for "let the buyer beware." Where do these eco-labels fit in? Is this a lot of hooey, hokum? Are these helpful? Someplace in-between?

FULMER: Well, you know, I think these labels are just at the beginning; we're just starting to see a lot more of them come to market. But I think they're kind of at the same place that organic was about 20 years ago. Consumers want to feel like they're doing good, that they're helping out. And I think that they can contribute to efforts that they support. But they just have to do their homework. They have to take a look at what these programs mean, how they're set up, who's making sure they're doing what they say they're doing.

CURWOOD: Melinda Fulmer is a business reporter with the Los Angeles Times who covers the food industry. Thanks for joining me today, Melinda.

FULMER: Thank you.




Consumers Union site on Eco-labels">


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