by Pan Demetrakakes, Editor

Ever since Good Housekeeping days, the seal of approval has been a time-honored sales tactic.

A seal, logo or stamp from a trusted organization-or even one that’s unfamiliar but looks like it should be trusted-can lend a certain cachet to a label or the front panel of a carton. If it’s in tune with a given consumer’s sensibility, it can give a crucial boost to the package’s appeal during those vital seconds in which many purchase decisions are made.

“A certification system provides a significant reduction of risk associated with having packaging, or the food products themselves, identified as coming from tainted or inappropriate sources,” says Michael Conroy, chairman of the board of TransFair USA and author of the book “Branded! How the ‘Certification Revolution’ is Transforming Global Corporations.” “So it gives you a relatively strong claim that your supply chain, whether for packaging or for food, has met reasonably high standards and credible auditing.”

And there are many such seals to choose from, relating to  both packaging and product. They cover aspects of health and nutrition, ranging from whole grains to heart health; environmental issues, including forest conservation and carbon footprint; and fair treatment for producers of certain commodities, among other concerns.

These certifications can be issued by governmental, quasi-governmental or non-governmental organizations. They’re sometimes the subject of disputes over how well-founded they are-or whether they should even exist.

Health and nutrition

Perhaps the most contentious kind of certification involves standardized front-of-package symbols that refer to nutrition. The degree of contention can be seen in high-profile failures, on both sides of the Atlantic, for both industry and governmental initiatives.

One of the biggest flameouts was the Smart Choices program, an initiative undertaken last year by some of America’s largest food companies. Processors including Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, the Kellogg Co. and General Mills supported a program that would allow them to put a standard logo-a green check with the words “Smart Check”-on the front of packages whose content met certain nutritional criteria. These included minimums for “positive nutrients” like fiber, and limits on “negative nutrients” like sugar and fat. The program was to be administered by the Keystone Center, a Keystone, Colo.-based nonprofit group that mediates public-policy disputes.

About 500 products rolled out last summer bearing the Smart Check seal. The program immediately ran into a critical buzz saw. Products with the Smart Check included Kellogg’s Froot Loops cereal (12 grams of sugar per serving) and Kid Cuisine’s Magical Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza from ConAgra (23% of RDA for saturated fat). The coup de grâce came when the Food and Drug Administration warned that it would investigate whether Smart Choices was misleading consumers; that led to the indefinite suspension of the program in late October.

Marion Nestle, an author and professor of nutrition at New York University, was one of the leading critics of Smart Choices (and a prominent critic of the food industry in general). Asked by e-mail whether any industry-funded nutrition labeling initiative could have the necessary objectivity, her reply was a terse, “Of course not.”

Nestle expressed skepticism about front-of-package nutrition labeling in general: “I don’t think it is possible to do this without opening up a lot of system-gaming.” She went on to say, “If there has to be a system like this, my preference is for traffic lights”-a reference to a government-based system that had been under consideration in the United Kingdom and other countries.

That system, however, recently was suspended from consideration by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the UK’s equivalent of the FDA. For more than a year, the FSA had considered formally recommending a plan under which food marketers would indicate the level of negative nutrients like fat, salt or sugar with green, yellow or red symbols, with red indicating the highest level.

But an intense lobbying campaign by several major food companies killed the traffic-light plan. It could have been no more than a recommendation in any case, but in early March, the FSA announced that it was abandoning the program.

Despite the reversal in the UK, the FDA is considering a plan for front-of-package nutritional labeling in the U.S. The Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit advisory organization on health issues, held meetings on front-of-package nutrition labeling in February and April, and is expected to issue recommendations to the FDA later this year.

Unless and until the FDA acts, third-party nutritional labeling in the U.S. will remain fragmented. As it stands now, some seals are available that address aspects of nutrition according to the agendas of the organizations issuing the seal.

One such organization is the American Heart Association, which makes its Heart Check seal available for products that don’t go over a per-serving threshold for saturated fat and cholesterol. Another is the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit group that issues Whole Grains or 100% Whole Grains stamps to more than 3,000 products.


Perhaps the most active field for third-party certification is in sustainability. As claims of sustainability in packaging have piled up, getting an objective source to vouch for them can be a good strategy to cut through the clutter.

Fiber, in its various forms, is a packaging material with strong sustainability claims: It’s biodegradable and comes from a renewable source. But that sourcing brings up questions about sustainable forestry practices.

Packaging suppliers and end users who want to appeal to sensibilities have two main certifying agencies to choose from: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). (The SFI is affiliated with Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, a Swiss-based umbrella organization that endorses certification programs in 30 countries.)

“FSC certification certifies that the fiber used in any product has gone through rigorous forest-management standards and has been certified up the chain of custody, at whichever point in the manufacturing process it’s been used,” says FSC spokesperson Martha Hodgkins.

Certification from both SFI or FSC is rooted in the source of the pulp used to make the paperboard, corrugated or other fiber-based material. The certification passes from the material producer, through the converter, to the end user, who has the option of using an SFI or FSC seal on retail cartons.

The question of which agency is more valid is the subject of some dispute. (See sidebar below, “FSC vs. SFI: Which one is truly good for wood?”) But both converters and end users find value in certifications from both.

MWV has offered a full line of SFI-certified paperboard since 2008. The certified board currently is available at no extra charge to converters and end users, although that situation is always liable to change depending on supply, says Frank Oliveri, vice president of marketing for the Packaging Resources Group of MWV.

“For us, the matter of certification of fiber was really a matter of answering a need that our customers have, or the brand owners and their customers might have, around assuring them that we are getting our fiber from responsibly managed and harvested lands,” Oliveri says.

One of the most prominent companies using FSC certification is Ben & Jerry’s, the premium ice cream unit of Unilever. Ben & Jerry’s is now in the process of phasing in all of its pint cartons to FSC-certified paperboard, complete with logo.

Part of Ben & Jerry’s cachet has always been environmental responsibility. In the late 1990s, the company tried to express that through its packaging by using cartons made of unbleached paperboard, which it called “eco-pints.” Ben & Jerry’s used eco-pints for about 10 years, but found that, far from persuading the rest of the industry to follow suit, it had a hard time sticking with the concept itself.

“While our ambition and our goals were true to the mission of our business...we found that we just couldn’t continue for a whole host of issues,” says Andrea Asch, Ben & Jerry’s manager of natural resources. Ben & Jerry’s found itself the only ice-cream company using unbleached paperboard pint cartons, and its supplier eventually dropped the product. Even before that, there were issues with barrier and other quality aspects.

But even without unbleached material as an option, Ben & Jerry’s wants to use responsibly sourced paperboard. That’s why, starting at the end of last year, the company began the transition to FSC-certified paperboard. It pays a premium of about 1.5% for the material, but considers the extra cost worth it.

“We didn’t want to lose our value that we really feel is important regarding the pulp and paper industry,” Asch says. “It’s just as important as the dairy industry or our ingredients.”

Fair trade

Ben & Jerry’s leads in another area of third-party certification. It is one of the first to get certification from TransFair USA for ingredients in a processed product, as opposed to a commodity like coffee.

Ben & Jerry’s got its first such certification in 2005 from TransFair USA for coffee used as an ingredient. It has since received TransFair seals for the cocoa, vanilla and nuts used in several flavors, including plain vanilla and chocolate, Milk & Cookies, Coffee Heath Bar Crunch and Chocolate Macadamia Nut.

“We’re trying to take these baby steps,” says Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson Sean Greenwood. “We know there’s well over 100 ingredients in our total product deck that we need to change over, but we’re going to make the commitment to make that full change by 2013 for all of our products manufactured worldwide.”

TransFair board chairman Conroy calls the TransFair certification sound strategy on the part of Unilever, which bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000.

“This is strictly a business decision on the part of Unilever, in order to continue to position Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as one of the more ethical, if not the most ethical, product in the market,” Conroy says. “They’re not raising their prices; they’ve got too much competition with Häagen-Dazs and other premium ice cream. But  they’re gaining an edge in the ethical field by producing the most ethical ice cream available in the grocery freezer.”

TransFair USA certifies more than 6,000 products, most of them foods and beverages. TransFair is part of a worldwide network of organizations whose focus is avoiding exploitation of farmers of various commodities, like coffee and cocoa, who often are from the Third World.

TransFair USA, like its sister organizations, started out mostly as means to assure consumers that their coffee came from farmers who had been paid a fair price. About two-thirds of its certifications remain for coffee. But about three years ago, it started certifying processed products, says Kate Baril, director of business development for food ingredients.

“We kind of ended up there by accident,” Baril says. “Companies wanted it, and then we had to come up with a program to support it.”

Accident or not, TransFair is pressing forward with certification for processed foods. Baril sees it as an important way to further her organization’s mission of fairness for farmers: “Obviously, we all consume a heck of a lot of packaged food, and they all have a tremendous impact on farmers.”

Other organizational certifications exist for fairness in other aspects of food. Some, like the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Network, address agricultural practices in general. Some, like the Certified Sustainable Seafood mark of the Marine Stewardship Council, are centered on particular types of food.

Conroy sees processed food as a growth area for certification: “Within fair trade, the commodity components are where the future is going to expand most rapidly.” In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, he says, hundreds of products are available with fair-trade certified ingredients.

“That’s probably going to be the most important growth area for agricultural products for fair trade in the U.S. as well,” he says. “It’s already beginning.”

And the concept may expand beyond ingredients, and beyond the Third World. Conroy says he is involved with a group that is building a certification model for the U.S. market that will include food safety, farmworker fairness and sustainable agriculture.

“There has been great interest on the part of major retailers in the grocery field to get that combination of assurances for consumers,” he says. “I suspect that by early 2011, your readers are going to find products with this certification backed by very powerful NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and religious groups on a wide array of agricultural products produced in the U.S., processed in the U.S., and sold in the major chains.”  F&BP

Logos of both the FSC and the SFI are featured on retail cartons in both the U.S. and overseas.

SIDEBAR: FSC vs. SFI: Which one is truly good for wood?

Packagers who want to use paperboard or other fiber-based products that come with sustainability assurances have two major organizations to choose from: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Both programs have, broadly speaking, the same goals and methods. They seek to ensure that the fiber they certify comes from wood harvested in a sustainable manner: avoidance of old-growth forests, maintenance of a forest’s net carbon-processing capabilities as far as possible, and general minimization of environmental impact. They both work by certifying the chain of custody of fiber from forest to mill.

However, environmentalists have criticized the SFI as funded primarily by the timber and paper industry, and created largely to serve their interests.

“The FSC has had a long history. It was formed by the NGO [non-governmental organization] community as well as the wood-processing community, [and follows] really rigorous standards that ensure the best practices in the forest,” says Scot Quaranda, campaign director of the Dogwood Alliance, an organization dedicated to sustainable forestry practices in the southern U.S. “Whereas SFI was created as a response by the paper the FSC, and has really been kind of a rubber stamp for business-as-usual forestry.” Specifically, Quaranda charged the SFI with condoning practices like large-scale clear cutting, conversion of natural forests to planted ones, and the use of toxic herbicides and fertilizers.

FSC spokesperson Martha Hodgkins cited organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank that have endorsed FSC. “So it’s third-party studies like that that have shown with quite a bit of objectivity that FSC standards are the most rigorous report certification in the world.”

Jason Metnick, SFI’s senior director for market access and product labeling, replied in a statement, “The SFI standard is rigorous and market-tested, and numerous stakeholders, governments, independent third parties, and science-based conservation groups support the goals of SFI. The fact is, 90% world’s forests are currently not certified to any standard, so bickering about the programs that account for the top 10% is counterproductive and takes the focus away from the real issues in responsible forestry globally. Forest certification is a valuable tool for the marketplace-but it is important that customers are not mislead in what certification can deliver. For example, all certification programs, including FSC and SFI, have requirements in place to allow for and to manage the extent of clearcuts, conversion and chemical use.”

The U.S. branch of FSC is part of a global network that works with suppliers like Tetra Pak. Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, recently started using FSC logos on its store-brand aseptically packaged dairy and juice products.