Labeling for Farmers

by Emily Lancaster, Animal Welfare Approved

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Accurate labeling is not only a legal issue – it can also help you sell your products.

As the Southeast Farmer and Market Outreach Coordinator for Animal Welfare Approved, the nonprofit certification program and food label for pasture-based livestock farms, I wear many hats.  One of these hats is assisting AWA farmers with labeling.  I work with farmers, graphic designers and the USDA to move label claim applications through the approval process on a weekly basis.  The one piece of advice I would share with anyone selling a product – and this goes for produce as well as meat, dairy and eggs – is:

Understand the claims you make, and understand their value to your customer.

The Farmer as Retailer

No matter what you sell, you will probably “label” it in some way, even if it is just verbally explaining the product.  So why not do this as effectively as possible?  For starters, accurate labeling is a legal issue.  The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, 317.8 (a) states, “No product or any of its wrappers, packaging, or other containers shall bear any false or misleading marking, label, or other labeling.”  This includes any statement, word, picture or design associated with the product.  But your label is not just needed for regulatory compliance; it’s also a marketing tool.  Your label is an introduction to your farm, and an opportunity to give customers information that will make them feel good about buying your product.

Adding Value: Additional Information, Claims, Logos & Certifications

We know that consumer demand for “ethical” food is on the rise, but how can you prove that your product qualifies?  A 2010 study by Context Marketing reports that in order to qualify as an “ethical food,” consumers felt the product must avoid harming the environment (93%), meet high safety standards (92%), use environmentally sustainable practices (91%), avoid inhumane treatment of animals (91%), and be produced according to high-quality standards (91%).  The study also showed that 69% of consumers are willing to pay more for food produced to higher ethical standards.

So how do you communicate your ethical practices to your customer, and show them the value of what you do?

1. Identify your values and your customer’s values: What do you want to communicate?

• Humane/animal welfare standards

• Pasture-/range-based

• Organic

• Environmentally responsible

• Local

2. Make sure your claims comply with existing regulations and accurately reflect your farm.

3. Look for a credible third-party certification, like Certified Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, etc.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short!

Within the alternative or “niche” farming community it is easy to forget that we are part of a much bigger labeling landscape.  The farmers’ market shopper still likely visits the grocery store and is mentally comparing your claims with those made on conventional products.  This is where it falls to you to educate your customer and explain why what you are doing is valuable and worth paying for.  It is important to give yourself credit, especially if what you do is above and beyond conventional production.  If you are a pasture-based farmer, these claims probably don’t fully describe you: “Cage Free,” “Free Range,” “Natural,” “Naturally Raised.”  For more information, see “What do Food Labels Really Mean?” in the link bundle below.

Know Your Claims

A farmer recently told me that once she started calling her beef “grass fed” she started getting twice as much for it.  But, as the conversation continued, it became apparent that she was still feeding grain.  Most likely, this person just didn’t know what “grass fed” meant – much less that there are two official definitions, namely USDA’s “Grass Fed” claim and the American Grass fed Association’s “Grass fed” claim (widely considered to be much more stringent).  However, regardless of what the farmer thought, her customers were probably under the impression that there was no grain involved – much less routine feeding. This could lead to misunderstandings down the road, and possibly lost customers.

The Problem with “Stretching It”

It’s not just the law, it’s your integrity. How did we all feel when we found out Taco Bell’s “beef” really wasn’t beef?  Or that Tyson was injecting embryos with antibiotics and claiming that the birds were “Raised without Antibiotics?”  Both of these situations resulted in lawsuits.  Aside from being illegal, making false claims can seriously undermine your customers’ trust in you and in your products.   Farmer or consumer, we all have an interest in engaging in an honest conversation about how our food is produced.

> For more information on food labels, visit the link bundle at: http://http://bit.ly/giVXNb

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