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Can We Trust So-Called “Sustainable Food Labels”?

sustainable food label

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02.23.2022

Organic/Bio = sustainable?

Can we trust so-called “Sustainable Food Labels”?

As more and more people start to think about their ecological footprint and what they can do to reduce it, they might be tempted to buy food articles with a green label or sustainable seal on their packaging. What does this mean, and which “Sustainable food labels” can consumers trust?

Organically produced goods are labeled as „Bio“ in Germany. „Bio“ stands for the German word „biologisch“ which translates to „organic“.

Bio is not automatically bio. What does this mean? The “EU Eco regulation” of 1991 introduced several criteria for producing, controlling, and importing goods to be labelled as “bio”. The regulations include all plant- and animal-based foods and other agricultural goods such as wool, rubber, and salt.

Germany for example introduced the widely known green “bio” hexagon seal in 2001 to inform consumers of the fulfilment of all EU criteria. An additional EU seal was introduced in 2012 to educate consumers about Bio goods produced in an EU-member state.

The original EU Eco regulation has been revised several times throughout the years, the newest version taking effect on January 1st, 2022. Critics in recent years have pointed out flaws in the requirements to label a good 100% bio. For example, the EU regulation only requires goods to come from 95% biological production. This means, a farm can grow “bio goods” right next to “non-bio goods” and still label them as bio.

For this reason, independent agriculture associations started creating their own “Premium Bio-Seals” with stricter criteria. To help you understand the differences, we will compare several Bio seals to the original EU-seal in the following:

What are the differences between the labels?

EU “Bio” seal:

Consumers will most often see the EU seal in all types of grocery stores, since it is the most commonly used. Even though it has the lowest entry criteria for farmers, consumers can be certain that the products containing this seal are more sustainable than any products without any seal.

  • A maximum of 270 laying hens, 580 chickens, or 14 pigs per hectare.
  • A product made out of a minimum of 95% bio-ingredients.
  • A 53 authorized additives in Bio-products.

Bioland seal:

Bioland is the largest cultivation association in Germany and its seal not only is awarded to food but also to plants and animal feed. To be awarded this seal, the cultivator needs to fulfil much stricter criteria which also evaluates the entire ecological cycle.

  • A maximum of 140 hens, 280 chickens, or ten pigs.
  • A product made out of 100% bio-ingredients (must be certified by Bioland).
  • 22 authorized additives in Bio-products.
  • Consumers can find Bioland products at Edeka and Lidl supermarkets.

Naturland seal:

Naturland is a global association with over 65,000 producers. Being stricter than the EU seal, they also assess social guidelines, regionality, and fair trade for their certification.

  • A maximum of 140 hens, 280 chickens, or ten pigs.
  • A product made out of 100% bio-ingredients (must be certified by Naturland).
  • 22 authorized additives in Bio-products.
  • Consumers can find Naturland products at Edeka, Rewe, and DM stores.

Demeter seal:

Demeter is another association which awards products fulfilling strict guidelines. Next to food, they also award cosmetic items which comply with a high degree of sustainability.

  • A maximum of 140 hens, 280 chickens, or ten pigs.
  • A product made out of 100% bio-ingredients (min 90% from Demeter raw ingredients).
  • 21 authorized additives in Bio-products.
  • Consumers can find Demeter products at Edeka, Kaufland, and DM stores.

There are far more criteria for each association that agricultural enterprises need to fulfill. Still, the general theme is clear:

  • No pesticides
  • More space per animal
  • Fewer additives
  • More restrictions on animal feed
  • A higher percentage of pure bio ingredients per product

How can I detect a credible label?

Besides these official “Bio” labels, hundreds of independent labels and seals promise to produce their products sustainably and ethically. A great way to check the authenticity of these labels is the websites www.label-online.de and www.labelchecker.de.

These websites give consumers insight into the origin, the criteria, and a “trust recommendation” of the label.

A quick search is enough to determine whether the product you are considering buying is as sustainable as it claims to be. The website checks, for example, whether the creator of a label is the same person as the examiner of criteria fulfilment and even compares them in different categories such as “social contribution”, “ecologic contribution,” and “credibility”. 

An alternative to these two websites is the widely available Android, Windows, and iOS App “NABU”.

With this app, users can take a picture of the label in question, and the application gives you a recommendation on whether the good is environmentally friendly.

A green thumbs-up stands for a recommendable product, a yellow thumb to the side stands for a good product with some improvement in the sustainability aspect, and a red thumb facing downwards shows goods that are not environmentally friendly.

Questions for you!

  • Do you look out for “organic labels” before choosing a product?
  • Would you use an app like “NABU” to check the credibility of a label?
  • Does it matter to you how much space an animal has to live?
  • Which organic products do you usually buy?

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4 Comments

  1. Faye

    I usually buy organic lemons and ginger, but besides that I have to admit that I don’t buy many organic products intentionally.

    Reply
    • Sara

      While I do look at the labels, they often leave me quite confused.. So thanks for this overview!

      Reply
      • Komoneed

        You’re welcome Sara!… And we are confused too!…. Besides, there are some kind of unwritten rules that generate an not-saintly use of these labels

        Reply
    • Komoneed

      Don’t give up and keep it up!

      Reply
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