When is local and organic really local and organic?

Can you judge a food by its label? Or should you take it with a grain of salt? 

Marketing is essentially the retail equivalent of politics—promises, promises. Call it “green-washing” or “local-washing,” but when it comes to food, it often seems more attention is paid to the selling than to the processing.

At both supermarkets and restaurants, items are sold with feel-good phrases like locally sourced, fair trade, organic and natural. And identifiers like “organic” and “locally sourced” have power. “Consumers are willing to pay for the benefits of quality products and ingredients when that is a value for them,” says Katja Macura, executive director of LOCO, the Vancouver-based alliance of local companies behind the B.C. Buy Local campaign.

“We surveyed hundreds of Canadian consumers in 2015 and found that nearly 70 per cent of consumers valued Canadian ownership as ‘most important’ or ‘important’ when shopping. Over 50 per cent were actively seeking Canadian-made products, and the same per cent preferred to buy from companies in their province or city.”

Alas, it is easier to make a claim than to back it up. A remarkable investigation by Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley this year revealed that, in Florida at least, buzzwords like “locally sourced” are employed willy-nilly. At farmers’ markets and popular restaurants, Reiley routinely found products mislabelled and falsely described as locally sourced. The Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights shouts “Death to Pretenders” on its menu but pretends cheese curds are homemade and shrimp are from Florida, Reiley writes. “If you eat food, you are being lied to every day.”

“It can be hard to tell,” admits LOCO’s Macura. “Purchasers should ask questions. At LOCO we focus on the following: Ownership of the business—is it private and over 50 per cent owned in B.C.? Location of production—is the product more than 50 per cent made in B.C.? And are over half the ingredients sourced in B.C.?”

Meanwhile words and phrases like “natural,” “sustainable” and “free range” hold considerable power despite flexible definitions and sometimes dubious benefits. “Organic” now possesses a talismanic power that can transform a bowl of ice cream into health food. “I remember my father telling me, ‘While uranium is both natural and organic, that does not mean it is safe to eat, so be aware of what you’re reading,’” recalls Mark Beaven, whose Whistler Roasting Company uses organic, shade-grown, fairly traded beans.

But as long as people see “organic” labelling, the perception of higher quality is almost unshakable. Two Dutch pranksters from the TV show Lifehunters made this point by taking McDonald’s snacks—Filet-o-Fish, Chicken McNuggets—to a convention of food experts and repackaging them as “an organic alternative to fast food.” Reaction? “It’s softer, more moist,” said one taster. “You can just tell it’s more pure,” said another.

Beaven also notes the distinction between “fair trade” and “fairly traded,” which could be an article in itself. While “fair trade” indicates certification by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, “fairly traded” is a more informal term—by no means bogus, but just a claim.

A Globe & Mail investigation of the poultry industry examined what “free range” and “cage-free” facilities were. They found that larger, well-equipped cages were likely the most humane method of large-scale egg production. But the tagline “larger, better cages” does not sell eggs like “free range” or “cage-free.” So pursuing best practices may offer no marketing advantage.

Susan St. James of Vancouver health food store Garden Health believes that there’s still value in buzzwords, misused or not. “These words, ideas, possibilities of a healthier food base—natural, organic, cage-free, etc.—get the consumer thinking about choosing wisely,” she says. “So even if terms are misused, and not accurate, perhaps it is the start of a greater understanding.”

As for Beaven, he can’t promise his coffee beans were grown locally. But at least he can do his part. “If you purchase only fresh, locally roasted, organic, shade-grown, Rainforest Alliance, frog friendly, Smithsonian-migratory-bird-friendly coffee,” Beaven says, “I think you should be able to believe that it is both fresh and locally roasted along with everything else.”