Guide to Food LabelsJuly 6, 2018
Consumers look for different things in learning how their food is raised, from pesticides to soil health to animal welfare to worker welfare to climate change to water quality to varying levels of vegan. They get the information in different ways - some good, some less good. There are third party certified labels, marketing claims that aren’t certified, uncertified marketing claims with pseudo-labels (a symbol of the Earth is sometimes just a symbol of the Earth), trusting the individual farmer (direct markets, here you are), and increasingly trusting the “gatekeeper” selling food. Food co-ops are well known examples of this role, curating food choices based on guiding principles and input from the member-owners.
Restaurants are also prominent curators of conscientious food choices - which is at the core of the Vermont Fresh Network mission.
Of course, trusting someone else to watch over your food choices makes it easier for consumers, trickier for those other people who are also balancing quality, cost, consistency, managing logistics of getting and preparing food, and dozens of other things. The Vermont Fresh Network has a new project to try to make things a little easier.
Our new Member-to-Member business directory allows producers and buyers to publish what types of products they sell and pertinent information about each, including certifications carried and additional comments. We started collecting information for this directory during our 2018 renewal drive. (Here's another reminder if you are a current member who hasn't provided that information, it only takes a few minutes: Culinary Member Form and Producer Member Form).
We’re also publishing a series of guides to provide a little more background - an overview of labeling and a series of more detailed looks at potentially confusing topics in supply chain transparency, starting with “local”. Coming soon - organic, humane, and a look at GMO labeling. Have questions about Vermont food sourcing and transparency you want answered? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do what we can.
The information in this link is accurate as of this writing (July 2018), but things change, so please check the links if you aren’t sure.
The least clear food production labels is also the one of greatest concern to the Vermont Fresh Network: where the food came from.
At VFN, we measure whether our culinary establishments are “local” food focused by setting minimum thresholds in 4 key areas - number of partnerships with farms, percent of food dollars spent on local foods, diversity of local food on the menu, and participation in the larger community to encourage a stronger local food system.
We use applications to verify local food purchasing, send emails to follow up on farmer partnership claims, review menus, and engage with members on community participation. Tracking dollars spent is the trickiest bit, we are not forensic accountants here, but we will work with members on how they calculate these numbers and best practices for creating benchmarks to track their own performance. We also work with anyone who questions what they are seeing on a menu to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Often it’s a question of what’s sourced through a distributor or retail purchases (especially for smaller locations), a change in sourcing with a lag time in being reflected on the listed partnerships, or a change in staff and a break in the communication about where food came from. More often than you might think, it’s farms with similar names and someone checked the wrong box. But when a member repeatedly misrepresents local purchasing, intentionally misrepresents it, or doesn’t correct the error, we take away their VFN partner membership.
[Have questions about local food purchasing claims within the network? E-mail email@example.com]
This review process doesn’t affect supporting members or prospective members - the Vermont Fresh Network wants everyone to participate in a positive way in the local food system and we’re happy to provide resources to culinary establishments in the early phases of local purchasing. However, they cannot use our logo or our marketing.
The state of Vermont monitors “local” claims via the Attorney General’s truth in labeling laws. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture plays a relatively small role, particularly after inability to police the use of the Vermont Seal of Quality ended that program (although its revival has been contemplated at various times).
The AG’s standards apply to the unqualified use of the word local. If you put with equal prominence how you’re using the term, for example “Local New England Apples”, that’s fine. If you don’t explain, then it needs to be food from within Vermont or 30 miles (often interpreted as Vermont plus 30 miles). For specialty food items the majority of ingredients (excluding water) need to be “local” as measured by number, volume, weight, or value. Alternatively, the term local can qualify a particular ingredient “Local Maple Peanut Butter” would have local maple, not necessarily local peanuts.
Meat is a trickier subject. A general rule of thumb, and one used by Farm to Plate, is that meat butchered here needs to have also spent the majority of its life raised here (75%+). Meat that is “substantially transformed” in Vermont (ie made in charcuterie) falls under the specialty food rules.
A local label doesn’t work in quite the same ways as a USDA-inspected seal or an Organic certification - producers don’t have to apply to gain access. On the other hand, it is not an unregulated term like “natural”. Anyone can call something local but if they’ve incorrectly labeled it they may face enforcement action. The AG’s office investigations can be accessed via public records request but they generally keep their investigations confidential, so there’s no easy way to know how frequently they act on the local labeling laws in particular. They have stated in the past that they do not receive complaints for misuse of “local”. More notable have been times when they enforce the use of the specific word (or image) “Vermont”, such as requiring Cabot remove the Vermont reference from its label.
[If you see a “local” label you believe is being misused, you can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office as a consumer - note that this complaint is not anonymous because of public records request laws. If you write “anonymous” in the contact information space the complaint is de facto anonymous, but you cannot receive a response. There is not currently a structure set up specifically for within-industry complaints, only the standard consumer grievance process].
Finally, one sometimes-overlooked aspect of local representations is direct sales avenues, like farmers markets. In Vermont, farmers markets do generally require that the people selling products at a market be the same people who raised those products. In other parts of the country a farmers market brings together folks from all over, not all of them producing their items locally. And in some places that do enforce local production, the common definition of “local” is a lot different from ours. Check out the well labeled local signage from the Chicago farmers market below. A 300 mile drive isn’t a common trip to market in Vermont, but can be if you’re headed to the city (particularly if that city is Chicago and market goers want to find local maple syrup - but hey, at least they weren't reverting to the fake stuff and we applaud them for going the extra mile (literally) to avoid it).