The Nutrition and Food Labeling Act of 1990 established rules for the calculation and disclosure of nutrition information on most processed food packages. Nutrition labeling for raw produce (fruits and vegetables) and fresh fish is voluntary. Regulations are maintained and enforced by the FDA nationally and the California Department of Public Health on the state level.
Organic Foods – The state of California began to regulate organic food in 1979. The California Organic Products Act of 2003 is the state’s companion to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). According to the standards set forth by the federal government, organic foods must be certified by a third party and labeled with the accrediting organization. Current organic standards regulate the chemical inputs for production and provide guidance on resource cycling, and biodiversity conservation. For example, the Organic Food Production Act asserts that organic crops will be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, and will be grown on land devoid of synthetic chemicals for 3 years prior to harvest.
Non-GMO Labels – Labels for genetically modified foods are voluntary. The FDA provides guidance on labeling and considers compliance with the National Organic Program to be an indication of the absence of bioengineering. In 2012, California voted on proposition 37, which sought to label genetically engineered food. Though the legislation was defeated, a number of non-profit organizations have developed labels for non-GMO food, including the Non GMO Project verified seal and California’s Certified Organic Farmers Non-GMO seal, which spreads awareness about the benefits of organic farming.
Fair Trade Certified – This label ensures that farmers and workers are compensated fairly. Standards are defined and audited by a third party certification program developed by Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization. In order to use the Fair Trade label, a producer must register their product and any other products in their supply chain.
Food Alliance Certification – The Food Alliance is a non-profit organization that promotes socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture practices. Criteria for certification include: no GMO crops or livestock, provision of safe and fair working conditions, soil quality maintenance, water resource conservation, minimized use of toxic and hazardous materials, and protocols to reduce and recycle waste.
Free Range or Free Roaming – The USDA definition applies only to poultry and requires producers to allow the animal access to the outdoors. However, third party certification groups, such as Humane Farm Animal Care use more stringent standards.
Grass Fed Label – Starting in January 2016, the USDA ceased its grass fed labeling program. Though the government’s Food Safety and Drug Inspection Services (FSIS) will continue to approve grass fed label claims, producers will largely define their own standards for animal welfare. The American Grassfed Association has developed comprehensive standards that are accepted by the FSIS. The AGA label indicates that animals were born and raised domestically on family farms, raised on a 100% forage diet, unconfined by a feedlot, and not given antibiotics or hormones.
Animal Welfare Approved – A third party certification for meat and dairy products derived from animals that were raised with consideration for their welfare and the surrounding environment. The certification requires that animals be provided continual access to pasture or rangeland, as well as the freedom to do other instinctive behaviors.
Seafood Watch Recommendations – An independent eco-certification program established by Seafood Watch, a non-profit organization housed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The organization’s scientists collect quantitative and qualitative data and then apply the sustainability criteria to develop a report. The report is reviewed by an expert panel, which generates new guidelines every 6 months.
Gluten Free Labels – At least 3 millions Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease, while many others experience a sensitivity to gluten. The FDA began to regulate gluten free labeling in 2013. A gluten free label means that the food does not contain any gluten or gluten derived ingredients such as wheat, barley, rye, spelt, etc. Any trace amounts of gluten need to be below 20 parts per million.
Expiration Dates – Most foods do not require an expiration date, with the exception of dairy products and infant formula. Date and lot codes are commonly used to trace batches of food for the purpose of recall and inventory management. These dates may be used to deduce the freshness of a product, but are seldom an indication of spoilage.
Potentially Hazardous Foods (PHF) – The state of California requires the “Perishable Keep Refrigerated” label for potentially hazardous foods, which may support the growth of toxic microorganisms when stored at temperatures over 45 degrees. This includes heat-treated foods, animal based foods, raw seed sprouts, cut melon, and some garlic-in-oil mixtures.