Label, Label, What’s on the Table?

Food labels are everywhere, but it is not always clear what labels mean and how to use them to identify a farm product. We are excited to learn more about food labels and why different Michigan farmers and processors invest in labels.

October 21, 2016

By Rachel Kelly, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems

Food labels are everywhere, but it is not always clear what labels mean and how to use them to identify a farm product.

We are excited to learn more about food labels and why different Michigan farmers and processors invest in labels at the upcoming Michigan Good Food Summit on Friday, October 28. Several Michigan producers will share their experiences and lessons learned with labeling, what it means for their business and some of processes that they followed to obtain specific certification and labels. This article begins to describe some of the different types of labeling and marketing angles some producers consider.

Labels are powerful marketing tools. One or two words can have a major impact on consumers by creating a compelling image or story, speaking to a product’s values, influencing the decision-making process, and ultimately selling a product. Food labels have considerable potential for Michigan farmers and producers. However, the use of various labels also creates confusion for many growers.

What do various labels mean? Can anyone use them? A growing number of farmers and producers are faced with the decision of whether or not to obtain accreditation—a sometimes lengthy, complex, and expensive endeavor—to use various food certification labels on their products. This article briefly explains four different types of labels—USDA Organic, Local, Biodynamic, and Fair Trade—farmers can obtain and how to go about the certification process for each. To hear more in person from farmers who have gone through these processes, join us at the Good Food Summit by registering here!


USDA Organic

USDA organic requires an official certification process, including a detailed application, transitional period and various associated fees. Despite these hurdles, the number of farmers and producers pursuing organic certification is growing. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there has been a nearly 300 percent growth of organic farms in the U.S. in the last 14 years, and a 2008 Organic Production Survey shows Michigan was one of the top ranking states for the total number of organic farms.

What does certified organic farming mean?

Briefly, USDA organic guidelines include the following:

  • Products cannot be exposed to synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge
  • Products cannot undergo methods like irradiation or genetic engineering
  • Farming practices should conserve natural resources, preserve the environment and promote humane animal husbandry

For a more detailed explanation of organic labeling visit the Agricultural Marketing Service’s page about organic regulations.

How can I get certified?

If you are considering pursuing organic certification, you should first visit the USDA’s webpage titled “Is Organic an Option for Me?” To begin the process, you must apply with a USDA agent, provide required documentation, and a pay an application fee. For a complete explanation of how to become certified organic producer, visit the USDA’s fact sheet on “Becoming a Certified Operation.”



What does local mean?

There is no official definition of what makes a food local. Typically, the term applies to a food that was produced within a certain geographic distance of where it is sold; however, this distance varies depending on the source. Local food appeals to consumers for a variety of reasons, as described in “The Local Food Movement: Setting the Stage for Good Food,” a report by the Center for Regional Food Systems:

  • Locally grown food products travel less distance from farm to plate, thus reducing carbon emissions
  • Buying locally supports local farmers and economies and enables consumers to meet the people who grow their food
  • Locally grown foods may taste better or retain greater nutritional qualities

How can I get certified?

There is no certification process necessary for using the word “local” on a food label. If you are interested in selling your food products locally at a farmers market or retail establishment, visit MSU Extension’s “Local Food and Farmers Markets” website for further details.



What does biodynamic mean?

According to the Biodynamic Association’s website, “biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food and nutrition.” Biodynamic growers select crops and livestock that are mutually beneficial, promote ecological balance, and limit the need for synthetic inputs. In addition, growing practices are aligned with the position of the sun, moon and planets. For more about biodynamic agriculture, visit the Biodynamic Association’s website.

How can I get certified?

The North American Biodynamic Apprentice Program (NABAP) offers a 2-year program that helps farmers learn how to build a successful biodynamic operation. Upon completion of the apprenticeship, participants receive a certificate of achievement. For more on the apprentice program, visit the NABAP website.


Fair Trade

What does fair trade mean?

Fair Trade foods are ethically grown and raised. According to the Fair Trade Certification website, producers must adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Working conditions should be safe for farm workers
  • Farm workers should earn a fair wage
  • Farming practices should be environmentally sustainable

How can I get certified?

Fair Trade USA is a non-profit organization that does fair trade certification in the U.S. In order to certify your farm, visit Fair Trade USA’s “Certification & Your Business” for more details.


Food labels can be an asset to farmers and producers, and there are many resources available to help those who are interested. To learn more about food labels and to hear from other farmers who use some of these labels, join us at the Good Food Summit on October 28. Register here!


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