Understanding Food Labels and Certificates:

A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction

Understanding food labels and certifications can be very confusing. With so many choices like organic, bio, and eco products, and labels like AOP, IGP, and PDO, it’s hard to know what they all mean. These certifications give important info about how sustainable, ethically produced, and high-quality the food products are. This guide is here to help break down the main global and official food labels and certifications, so you can make informed choices. We’ll also cover local and regional labels and other eco-labels in Europe to give you a full view of food certifications in the region. In Europe, food labels tell us about where the food comes from, how it’s made, and its sustainability. Let’s explore some of the most famous food labels in the area.

Global and Official Food Labels & Certificates

Eco, Bio & Organic:

THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE

The terms ecological, biological, and organic, as well as the abbreviations eco and bio, all mean the same thing.
You can recognize real eco, bio, and organic foods* by the Euroleaf label. So, even if the packaging looks rustic or eco-friendly and the word bio is written all over it, it is not organic unless it features the Euroleaf and the inspection body’s code certifying the product’s origin and raw materials.

The words “ecological,” “biological,” and “organic,” as well as the short forms “eco” and “bio,” all mean the same thing. The real eco, bio, and organic foods have the Euroleaf label. Even if the packaging looks earthy or eco-friendly and says “bio” in big letters, the product isn’t truly organic unless it has the Euroleaf and the code from the inspection body that certifies where the product comes from and what materials were used. These products are made sustainably, respecting natural systems and protecting the natural landscape. They also make good use of energy and natural resources, and they have high animal welfare standards. They don’t have GMOs, and they use artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides as little as possible.

The seal of the European Union. Regulation (EU) 2018/848 of the European Parliament and of the Council on organic production and labeling of organic products

Fairtrade

THE MOST ESTABLISHED LABEL FOR FAIRLY PRODUCED AND TRADED PRODUCTS

Fairtrade aims to eliminate poverty by providing better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers worldwide, with a focus on lower-income countries.

Fairtrade is all about making sure that farmers and workers around the world get a fair deal. It’s about providing fair prices, good working conditions, sustainability, and fair trade terms, particularly in lower-income countries. If you see the original Fairtrade mark on a product, it means that it has been produced and traded fairly, and you can trace it all the way back to the farm. You might also come across the Fairtrade mark with an arrow on products like chocolate bars or cereal, which means that the ingredients, such as cocoa, sugar, and vanilla, are all Fairtrade certified, making up at least 20% of the total content. Keep an eye out for the white and black Fairtrade marks too, as they indicate whether the ingredients are Fairtrade certified.

Products with the original Fairtrade mark are fairly produced and traded but also fully traceable (kept separate from non-certified products) from farm to shelf. This mark can be found on single-ingredient products such as coffee and avocados.

The Fairtrade mark with an arrow is used on products like chocolate bars or cereal that have a mix of ingredients. All the ingredients in these products have to be Fairtrade, like cocoa, sugar, and vanilla. The minimum total Fairtrade content is 20%. The mark is also used on single-ingredient products that have been sourced using “mass balance” for cocoa, sugar, fruit juice, and tea.

The white Fairtrade mark indicates Fairtrade-sourced ingredients, like Fairtrade cocoa in a breakfast cereal. This differs from the black mark, which signifies all ingredients are Fairtrade certified. In this model, the product carries these labels to indicate specific Fairtrade-certified ingredients, such as Fairtrade cashews in mixed nuts or Fairtrade honey in a non-Fairtrade cereal.

FSSC 22000

Food Safety System

Food Safety System Certification (FSSC) makes sure that the products you buy are safe, affordable, and high-quality. FSSC combines ISO standards with industry-specific programs and extra requirements to ensure that it’s recognized globally. The certification is recognized internationally by The Global Food Safety Coalition (GFSI) and is managed by an Advisory Committee of food experts at Foundation FFC.

Food Safety System Certification (FSSC) ensures that the food you buy is safe, affordable, and top-notch. FSSC combines ISO standards with industry-specific programs and extra requirements to ensure global recognition. The certification is recognized worldwide by The Global Food Safety Coalition (GFSI) and is managed by an Advisory Committee of food experts at Foundation FFC. Food manufacturers show their dedication to current food standards by integrating quality management and food safety into FSSC 22000-Q certification.

Food manufacturers demonstrate their commitment to current food standards by integrating quality management and food safety into FSSC 22000-Q certification.

RAINFOREST ALLIANCE

RESTORING THE BALANCE BETWEEN PEOPLE AND NATURE

The Rainforest Alliance promotes sustainability and aims to make sustainable farming the norm for cocoa, coffee, tea, and hazelnuts. A product with the seal contains one or more key ingredients produced with social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

The Rainforest Alliance is dedicated to promoting sustainability and making sustainable farming the standard for cocoa, coffee, tea, and hazelnuts. Products with the Rainforest Alliance seal contain one or more key ingredients produced with a focus on social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The certification program is committed to protecting and improving forests, mitigating climate change through responsible land management and farming practices, advocating for the rights of farmworkers, and enhancing opportunities for smallholder farmers and forest communities.

Forests: The program promotes forest protection and
stopping deforestation. It encourages farmers to plant
more trees on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, rather than cutting down trees for farmland.

Climate: Standing forests store carbon, mitigating climate change. The program promotes responsible land management and farming practices to conserve trees and help farmers face climate-related disasters.

Human Rights: The certification program supports the rights of farmworkers and their communities by providing resources to prevent labor abuses and address issues as they arise. 

Livelihoods: Improving opportunities for smallholder farmers and forest communities is crucial for lifting rural people out of poverty and protecting important landscapes. Our certification program helps enhance farmer incomes.

FOOD QUALITY VALUING

VALUING SPECIAL QUALITIES WITH EU FOOD QUALITY SCHEMES

In the EU, certain quality schemes protect product names and highlight their unique traits and traditional know-how, assuring consumers of their genuineness, high quality, and strict safety standards.

In the EU, certain quality schemes protect product names and highlight their unique traits and traditional know-how, assuring consumers of their genuineness, high quality, and strict safety standards.

  • Protected Designation of Origin (PDO): This label is for products with the strongest links to the place they are made. All production, processing, and preparation must occur within the specific region. Example: Kalamata olive oil PDO.
  • Protected Geographical Indication (PGI): This label emphasises the link between a specific region and a product’s name, where its quality or reputation is tied to its geographical origin. Example: Westphalian Knochenschinken PGI ham.
  • Geographical Indication of Spirit Drinks (GI): This label protects the name of a spirit drink associated with a specific geographic origin. Example: Irish Whiskey GI.
  • Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG): This label emphasises traditional aspects of a product, such as production methods or ingredients, without being tied to a specific geographical area. Example: Gueuze TSG beer.

GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATIONS

Geographical indications protect the names of products associated with specific regions and their unique qualities. There are three types:
• PDO
(protected designation of origin)
PGI (protected geographical indication)
GI (geographical indication for spirit drinks

PROTECTED DESIGNATION OF ORIGIN (PDO)
Product names registered as PDO are those that have
the strongest links to the place in which they are made.
Products: Food, agricultural products, and wines.
Specifications: All production, processing, and preparation must take place within the specific region,
using grapes exclusively from that area for wine production.
Example: Kalamata olive oil PDO is entirely produced in the region of Kalamata in Greece, using olive varieties from that area.
Label: Mandatory for food and agricultural products, optional for wine.

PROTECTED GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATION (PGI)
PGI emphasizes the link between a specific region and
a product’s name, where its quality or reputation is
tied to its geographical origin.
Products: Food, agricultural products, and wines.
Specifications: For most products, at least one
production stage must occur in the region. For wine, at
least 85% of the grapes used must come exclusively
from the geographical area where the wine is made.
Example: Westphalian Knochenschinken PGI ham is made using traditional methods, but the meat used may not exclusively come from animals born and raised in that specific region of Germany.
Label: Mandatory for food and agricultural products, optional for wine.

GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATION OF SPIRIT DRINKS (GI)
The geographical indication protects the name of a spirit drink that is associated with a specific geographic origin.
Products: Spirit drinks
Specifications: At least one stage of distillation or
preparation for most products occurs in the region, although raw products are not required to originate from the region.
Example: Irish Whiskey GI has been distilled, matured,
and brewed in Ireland since the 6th century, although the raw materials are not exclusively sourced from Ireland.
Label: Optional for all products.

TRADITIONAL SPECIALITY GUARANTEED (TSG)

TSG emphasizes traditional aspects of a product, such as production methods or ingredients, without being tied to a specific geographical area. Registration protects the name from falsification and misuse.

Products: Food and agricultural products
Example: Gueuze TSG is a traditional beer produced through spontaneous fermentation in and around Brussels, Belgium, with a protected production method.
Label: Mandatory on all products

AOC is AOP or PDO and
DOC is DOP or PDO

French wines have traditionally been classified under the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) system, which was established by the French government in the 1950s. To attain AOC status, wines must be produced from approved grape varieties grown in specified regions and vinified, packaged, and marketed according to the appellation’s standards.
In the 1960s Italy introduced a similar system modeled after the French AOC, called DOC (Denominazione d’origine controllata), which means “Designation of Controlled Origin.”
In the 1990s, the European Union created a comprehensive system Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under the Common Market Organization (CMO).
The European system doesn’t replace the AOC and DOC systems; it works alongside them. Wines are now classified under both the EU system and the national AOC and DOC systems.
As a result, AOC is also referred to as AOP (Appellation d’origine protégée) or PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in English, and DOC is also known as DOP (Denominazione d’origine protetta) or PDO in English.

Other Country
Specific Food Labels

The labels we talked about cover a wide range of European food production. Additionally, many countries have their own specific certifications and labels. Let’s take a look at some interesting examples

 

Food labels are essential tools for informing consumers about food products’ origin, quality, and environmental impact. They provide reassurance and trust in the products they purchase. Labels such as organic, fair trade, and geographical indications (GIs) are widely recognised and valued by consumers globally.

European Union’s Harmonisation Efforts

In Europe, there is a growing trend towards harmonizing food labeling to enhance clarity and consumer confidence. The EU launched its organic label in 2000 with the goal of replacing national equivalents such as France’s AB (Agriculture Biologique). Similarly, the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) is being transitioned to the European AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée).

This harmonization simplifies the certification process and helps streamline the multitude of existing labels, making it easier for consumers to understand the quality and origin of the products they buy.

Key Labelling Trends by Country

United Kingdom

  • Context: British consumers show limited interest in labels apart from Fairtrade. The “buy British” movement is prominent, with supermarkets prioritising local products.
  • Main Labels: Fairtrade, Buy British, Organic.
  • Comment: Retailers prioritize their own brands’ origins and production info over generic labels.

Italy

  • Context: Italy boasts the most AOP, IGP, and STG products in Europe but faces a lack of consumer awareness.
  • Main Label: AOP.
  • Comment: The EU and producer associations need to improve communication in order to raise awareness and understanding of labels.

France

  • Context: France leads in protecting the origin and quality of its food products, with labels widely accepted across all distribution channels.
  • Main Labels: Label Rouge (quality), AOC (origin), AB (organic).
  • Comment: Products with quality labels have a great future if they stand out and communicate their benefits to consumers effectively.

Portugal

  • Context: European labels are seen as markers of quality and connection to the terroir.
  • Main Labels: DOP (AOP), IGP (origin), AB (organic).
  • Comment: The connection between where products come from and how good they are is a big deal for shoppers, making European brands very popular in Portugal.

Germany

  • Context: German consumers are label-conscious, especially for environmentally friendly products.
  • Main Labels: Bio, Fairtrade, QS (quality assurance).
  • Comment: Sustainability and traceability labels are highly valued in Germany.

Spain

  • Context: Despite their availability, consumer awareness of many labelled products is low, while regional quality brands are widely recognized.
  • Main Labels: Regional labels like Reyno Gourmet, Tierra de Sabor, Calidad Certificada Andalucia.
  • Comment: By pairing labels with consumer education campaigns, brands can create a distinct identity that sets them apart from the competition.

Benelux/Netherlands

  • Context: Although European labels may not be widely acknowledged, many Dutch consumers are familiar with at least one EU food label.
  • Main Labels: Bewuste Keuze (health), Beter Leven (animal welfare), EKO (organic).
  • Comment: The excessive use of labels and poor communication diminishes their perceived value.

Benelux/Belgium

  • Context: The numerous labels in the market can be extremely perplexing for consumers, but the organic labels seem to be the most familiar to people.
  • Main Labels: Biogarantie (organic), Meritus (quality), Rainforest Alliance (environmental protection).
  • Comment: Clear communication is essential to make labels a reference for superior quality.

Poland

  • Context: Labels are gaining popularity, with over half the population checking for quality labels, though European labels are less recognised.
  • Main Labels: Qualité Tradition, Poznaj Dobra Zywnosc (information program).
  • Comment: Labels that focus on health and well-being are attractive, and they complement local labels with European certifications.

Canada

  • Context: The Canadian market values food safety, with labels like AOC being well-known.
  • Main Labels: Aliments Québec (origin), Certified Organic, VQA, AB, AOC.
  • Comment: Labels are prevalent but mainly appeal to niche markets.
  •  

United States

  • Context: Federal labelling focuses on production methods and health benefits, and the EU and the US recently agreed to mutually recognize organic labels.
  • Main Labels: USDA Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients, Locally Grown.
  • Comment: People in the US are becoming more interested in labels that emphasize local and high-quality products.

China

  • Context: The adoption of the European geographical indications system in 2005 promotes quality and intellectual property protection.
  • Main Labels: Protection of Geographical Indication (PGI), Green Food.
  • Comment: The GI system is being implemented at just the right time, and it’s likely to work out well, considering the need for quality control in the Chinese market.

Japan

  • Context: Labels are popular but numerous, causing consumer confusion.
  • Main Label: JAS (Japan Agriculture System), which precedes the European AB.
  • Comment: Explaining label standards to importers and distributors is crucial for market penetration in Japan.

Other Ecolabels in Europe on Food

In addition to organic and country-specific labels, numerous ecolabels exist across Europe, each with its own focus and criteria. Let’s explore some of these labels and their significance:

In Europe, there are several eco-labels that focus on ensuring food is produced sustainably. These labels look at environmental, social, and economic factors to ensure food is made ethically and eco-friendly. This helps people access food that’s good for the planet and made responsibly.

Key Ecolabels in Europe

  1. 4C Association
    • Focuses on sustainability in the coffee sector.
    • Includes farmers, traders, industry players, and NGOs.
  2. AB (Agriculture Biologique)
    • France’s national organic logo since 1985.
    • Requires over 95% organic components.
  3. AENOR Medio Ambiente
    • Type I ecolabel for environmentally friendly products and services.
    • Certification involves auditing and lab tests.
  4. AIAB (Italian Association for Organic Agriculture)
    • Certifies a wide range of organic products including food, detergents, and cosmetics.
  5. AMA Biozeichen
    • Austrian label for organic food.
    • Available in two versions: with and without origin specification.
  6. AfOR Compost Certified
    • Certifies compost as either a product or waste, ensuring compliance with PAS 100 & CQP standards.
  7. Aquaculture Stewardship Council
    • Sets standards for sustainable aquaculture and seafood chain of custody.
  8. BIO Hellas
    • Provides inspection and certification for organic products under EU and USDA standards.
  9. BIO Hotels
    • Certifies hotels using organic and regional products.
  10. BIODAR
    • Slovenian label for organic products adhering to IFOAM standards.
  11. Best Aquaculture Practices
    • Certifies aquaculture facilities based on environmental and social standards.
  12. Bio Suisse
    • Swiss label for fully organic products, with over 90% raw materials sourced domestically.
  13. Bio-Siegel
    • German label for products meeting EU organic farming regulations.
  14. BioForum Biogarantie and Ecogarantie
    • Belgian organic labels with stringent standards beyond EU regulations.
  15. Biokreis
    • German NGO promoting regional and fair organic farming.
  16. Bioland
    • Certifies organic farming and processing based on the organic-biological method.
  17. Bird Friendly Coffee
    • Ensures coffee is grown using bird-friendly, shade management practices.
  18. Bonsucro
    • Focuses on reducing the environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production.
  19. C.A.F.E. Practices
    • Starbucks’ sustainability standard for sourcing coffee, covering economic, social, and environmental aspects.
  20. California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)
    • Promotes organic farming through certification and advocacy.
  21. Carbon Reduction Label
    • Indicates products with measured and certified carbon footprints, with a commitment to reduction.
  22. Carrefour Eco-Planete
    • Range of Carrefour products certified by various ecolabels like FSC, MSC, and the European Ecolabel.
  23. Climatop
    • Labels products with CO2 emissions at least 20% lower than similar products.
  24. Danish Ø-mark
    • Denotes organic products from authorised Danish farms.
  25. Delinat Bio Garantie
    • Swiss wine label focusing on biodiversity and organic production.
  26. Deutsches Güteband Wein (DLG)
    • German quality label for wine meeting high sensory and environmental standards.
  27. Dolphin Safe / Dolphin Friendly
    • Certifies tuna caught without harming dolphins.
  28. EQUITRADE
    • Promotes fair trade by certifying products sourced from poor communities.
  29. EU Organic Products Label
    • Indicates products grown within sustainable systems, with at least 95% organic ingredients.
  30. Ecocert
    • French certification body for organic agriculture and sustainable development.
  31. Environmental Product Declaration
    • Provides verified information on the environmental performance of products.
  32. Estonian Organic Farming
    • Label for organic products certified under Estonia’s Organic Farming Act.
  33. Fair Trade Organization Mark
    • Identifies fair trade organizations that meet WFTO monitoring requirements.
  34. Fair for Life
    • Certification programme for social accountability and fair trade in various sectors.
  35. FairWild
    • Framework for sustainable, fair trade of wild-collected natural ingredients.
  36. Fairtrade
    • Ethical trade system improving the lives of farmers and workers in developing countries.
  37. Friend of the Sea
    • Certifies fisheries with sustainable practices and minimal environmental impact.
  38. Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP)
    • Voluntary standards for certifying agricultural products, reassuring consumers about farm practices.
  39. Good Shopping Guide Ethical Award
    • Independent benchmark for corporate social responsibility across multiple criteria.
  40. Green Crane: Ukraine
    • Environmental labelling for products with less environmental impact throughout their life cycle.
  41. HAND IN HAND
    • Private fair trade programme of Rapunzel Naturkost GmbH, focusing on quality and cooperation with producers in developing countries.
  42. IMO Certified
    • International agency for certification of eco-friendly products in various sectors.
  43. Krav
    • Swedish label promoting organic production from raw materials to consumer products.
  44. LEAF Marque
    • Certifies food produced by farmers committed to environmental improvement.
  45. Luomu Sun Sign
    • Finnish label for controlled organic production, owned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
  46. Luomuliitto – The Ladybird Label
    • Finnish label for organic products with at least 75% ingredients of Finnish origin.
  47. Marine Stewardship Council
    • Certifies fisheries meeting standards for sustainable fish stocks and minimal environmental impact.
  48. Max Havelaar
    • Fair trade label for products improving living conditions of small farmers and workers.
  49. Milieukeur: the Dutch Environmental Quality Label
    • Dutch label for a variety of food products meeting environmental criteria.
  50. Naturland e.V.
    • German association promoting organic agriculture worldwide with high standards for farming and processing.
  51. Neuland
    • German label for meat products from animal-friendly and environmentally sound husbandry.
  52. Nordic Ecolabel or “Swan”
    • Certifies products as environmentally friendly, available for 65 product groups in Nordic countries.
  53. Organic Farmers & Growers Certification
    • UK label meeting DEFRA regulations for organic production and processing.
  54. Organic Food Federation
    • Certifies organic operations and products.
  55. Preservando El Medio Ambiente
    • Spanish label for wine grown with ecological principles and renewable energy.
  56. Processed Chlorine Free
    • Certification for products meeting environmental standards, including chlorine-free processing.
  57. RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil
    • Ensures palm oil is produced sustainably and traceably.
  58. Rainforest Alliance Certified
    • Certifies products from farms meeting comprehensive environmental and social standards.
  59. SEE What You Are Buying Into
    • Labelling scheme for businesses transparent about their social, environmental, and ethical practices.
  60. SIP Certified
    • Certifies vineyards committed to sustainable farming practices.
  61. SMaRT Consensus Sustainable Product Standards
    • Sustainable product standard covering environmental, social, and economic criteria for various products.
  62. Singapore Green Label Scheme (SGLS)
    • Helps identify environment-friendly products in Singapore.
  63. Skal Eko Symbol
    • Dutch certification for organic products based on European and Dutch legislation.
  64. Soil Association Organic Standard
    • UK certification for a wide range of organic products and practices.
  65. Sustainable Agricultural Network
    • Certifies farms for various crops based on environmental and social standards.
  66. TerraCycle
    • Collects and repurposes non-recyclable waste into new products.
  67. Totally Chlorine Free
    • Certification for products with no chlorine in the manufacturing process, focusing on overall sustainability.
  68. UTZ Certified
    • Ensures sustainable farming practices and supports farmers in developing countries.
  69. Vitality Leaf
    • Russian ecolabel promoting environmentally friendly products and member of the Global Ecolabelling Network.
  70. Whole Trade™ Guarantee
    • Whole Foods Market programme ensuring high quality, fair wages, and environmental care for products.
  71. Wholesome Food Association
    • UK symbol scheme for local, organic food production.
  72. WindMade
    • Consumer label for products and companies using wind energy.
  73. Ø-label: Norway
    • Certifies organic production in Norway, ensuring compliance from farm to table.

Conclusion

In Europe, food labels come in all shapes and sizes, showing that we care about where our food comes from and how it’s made. It’s important to know what these labels mean so we can make good choices. When we get why these labels are necessary, we can pick products that are excellent quality, safe, and produced sustainably and fairly. By trusting these certifications, we can all help in creating a food system that’s more open and eco-friendly.

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