Food endorsement programs

We look beyond the catchy logos to tell you which endorsement schemes you can really trust.
 
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01 .Introduction

logos
With so many endorsement programs now appearing on food labels, how do you know which ones truly live up to their lofty claims? A CHOICE panel, comprising our food and sustainability experts, scrutinised the claims behind the 10 most recognised health and sustainability logos to tell you which ones get our seal of approval.

The programs we reviewed all have quite different - but all admirable - goals, from improving trading and working conditions of third-world farmers, protecting dolphins against harmful fishing practices, improving nutritional health or supporting sustainable agriculture, through to improving the welfare of commercially farmed animals. We took a close look at how the programs operate and the level of integrity underpinning each program, and assessed them against our stringent criteria.

The 10 programs reviewed are:

  • Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
  • National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) certified organic
  • Fairtrade
  • GI symbol
  • National Heart Foundation tick
  • Organic Growers of Australia
  • Rainforest Alliance Certified 
  • RSPCA “Paw of Approval” 
  • Dolphin safe
  • Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia (FREPA)

The good news is we found most can be trusted. But two in particular stood out: Australian Certified Organic (ACO) and NASAA Certified Organic.

We take you through the ins and outs of these 10 well-known endorsement programs, highlighting ones we recommend and the ones we believe need to lift their game.

 
 

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Below is a snapshot of the endorsement programs reviewed, what we evaluated them against and how they all stacked up.

food_endorsement_940

Both these schemes below made our highly recommended list. They are fully independent from commercial interests and conduct annual, onsite third-party verification of producers or companies endorsed under their program. They’re transparent about their standards, governance and how they’re funded. They also ticked all the boxes for consumer focus, which we consider vital, given it’s consumers who are using the logos to buy products and ultimately support the programs. Importantly, both are accredited by the government’s Australian Quarantine Inspection Service as organic certification bodies.

AUSTRALIAN CERTIFIED ORGANIC (ACO)

logo-ACO

  • Logo seen on baby food, biscuits, bread, cakes, cereal, coffee, eggs, fruit, licorice, meat, milk, olive oil, tea, vegetables, wine etc. See the complete ACO product list.
  • What it means Use of this logo indicates the product meets organic standards, which include stringent animal welfare and environmental standards. Use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides is prohibited. There are no genetically modified inputs, and the organic philosophy incorporates a respect for the natural order of seasons and animal behaviour. Animals are free-range and there’s no use of growth promoters such as steroids or hormones.
  • Standards  Read the standards.
  • Program/organisation structure ACO is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA). Details of its structure and board are on the BFA website.
  • Program funding BFA is a not-for-profit organisation with the aim of progressing the sustainable development of the organic industry. BFA is funded by membership fees and promotional contributions, along with promotional initiatives and sponsorships for publications and other activities. ACO charges for its certification services and this funds its operating costs.

Consumer contact details
Phone: (07) 3350 5716
Email: organiccrusader@bfa.com.au

NASAA CERTIFIED ORGANIC (NCO)

Logo-NASAA

  • Logo seen on baby food, cereal, cheese, fruit, herbs, jams and spreads, juice, meat, milk, nuts, olive oil, vegetables, wine etc. See NASAA's complete product list
  • What it means Use of this logo indicates the product meets organic standards, which include stringent animal welfare and environmental standards. Use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides is prohibited. There are no genetically modified inputs, and the organic philosophy incorporates a respect for the natural order of seasons and animal behaviour. Animals are free-range and there’s no use of growth promoters such as steroids or hormones.
  • Standards Read the standards.
  • Program/organisation structure NASAA comprises an association of members and internationally certified operators through its wholly owned subsidiary, NASAA Certified Organic (NCO). Both NASAA and NCO each have a board comprising up to five directors, as well as a chairperson. The NASAA website and annual report have more details.
  • Program funding NASAA is a not-for-profit company with income generated from its membership subscription, exhibition representation and the use of trademark revenue. The NCO is funded by the income generated from certification delivery and service provision.

Consumer contact details
Phone: (08) 8370 8455
Email: enquiries@nasaa.com.au

These programs, while still trustworthy, fall short against one or two of our criteria and so missed out on our highest accolade.

FAIRTRADE

Fair_Trade

  • Logo seen on coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa and nuts. See details.
  • What it means This label on a product means its producers and traders have met internationally agreed Fairtrade standards. Farmers and producers in developing countries receive a designated fair price for their produce, helping provide security and stability as well as additional funds to develop their communities and invest in things such as education and health care.
  • Why it falls short Certification is generally given to what are known as “producer organisations” rather than individual farmers. Producer organisations can be large, comprising of hundreds or sometimes thousands of farmers. For this reason, when compliance with the standard is being verified a “group certification” model is followed, where the producer organisation itself is audited, in addition to random checks of a representative sample of individual farmers. This means some farms or farmers may never be visited.
  • Program standards Read the standards.
  • Program/organisation structure Fairtrade Labelling Australia and New Zealand (FLANZ) is a not-for-private-profit member organisation and income tax-exempt charity, overseen by a board elected by FLANZ member organisations and Oxfam New Zealand, Friends of the Earth Australia and Christian World Services New Zealand. The board and membership of FLANZ are independent of any commercial interests in the use of the Fairtrade Label. Fairtrade annual reports have details.
  • Program funding License fees, membership fees, and donor funding are the primary sources of income.

Consumer contact details
Phone: 03 9662 2919
Email: info@fairtrade.com.au

GI SYMBOL

Logo-GI-copy

  • Logo seen on bread, breakfast cereals, crackers, fruit, frozen desserts, fruit bars, fruit juice, milk, pasta, rice, snacks, sweeteners, yoghurt etc. See details.
  • What it means A food product that carries the GI Symbol has had its glycemic index tested to the Australian Standard in an accredited lab. It also meets nutrition criteria for energy (calories/kilojoules), fat, saturated fat, sodium, and where appropriate, fibre and calcium. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a measure of how the carbohydrate in a food affects your blood glucose levels as it’s digested, absorbed and metabolised. Low-GI foods are recommended for people with diabetes, and low-GI diets may also help those who need to lose weight.
  • Why it falls short The development and any subsequent reviews of the GI Symbol Program criteria have not been open to broad public consultation and therefore there’s been no formal opportunity for consumers to have input.
  • Program standards/criteria Read the standards and criteria.
  • Program/organisation structure The GI Symbol Program is a not-for-profit scheme backed by the Glycemic Index Foundation, a collaboration between the University of Sydney, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of Australia and Diabetes Australia. The GI Symbol website lists its board of directors.
  • Program funding License fees are the primary source of funding, with a small amount coming from fee for service (for example, providing expert review of books referencing GI).

Consumer contact details
Phone: 02 9966 0400
Email: stephanie@gisymbol.com

HEART FOUNDATION TICK

Logo-Heart-Foundn

  • Logo seen on bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, custard, grains, muffins, pasta and noodles, fresh fruit and vegetables, fruit juice, nuts and seeds, milk, meat, oils, poultry, ready meals, sauces, seafood, spreads, stocks, yoghurt etc. See details.
  • What it means Foods bearing the tick meet the NHF Tick program’s nutrition criteria and represent choices that are lower in certain nutrients (such as saturated fat, sodium) and/or higher in others (such as fibre) than other foods in the same category.
  • Why it falls short Its rigorous verification process involves monthly random audits and product testing by a third party to ensure products labelled with its logo meet its nutrition criteria. However, while some products are tested more frequently it’s not required that all products be verified annually. All of its nutrition criteria will eventually be made public, but for now just 10 of the 60+ food categories are currently available. The development and subsequent reviews of these criteria have also not been open to broad public consultation.
  • Program criteria The tick has criteria for 60+ food categories. To date, the criteria for 10 of these categories have been published. 
  • Scheme/organisation structure The Tick program is governed by the Heart Foundation, a not-for-profit, non-government organisation. As a charity it mainly relies on donations to continue research, education and health promotion work. See the list of honorary National Board Members
  • Program funding Tick is a not-for-profit program. Licensee fees are the sole source of income for the tick and they cover all costs associated with the program. No donations to the Heart Foundation are used to fund the Tick.

Consumer contact details
Phone: 1300 36 27 87 (for heart health information)
Email: email addresses are state specific 

ORGANIC GROWERS OF AUSTRALIA (OGA)

Logo-OGA 

  • Logo seen on fresh fruit and vegetables, jams, preserves, dried herbs etc (primarily at farmers markets, local shops and independent organic stores).
  • What it means Use of this logo indicates the product meets organic standards, which include stringent animal welfare and environmental standards. Use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides is prohibited. There are no genetically modified inputs, and the organic philosophy incorporates a respect for the natural order of seasons and animal behaviour. Animals are free-range and there’s no use of growth promoters such as steroids or hormones.
  • Why it falls short There’s no information on the OGA website about the products it certifies; to get this information, you need to contact the OGA office directly.
  • Program standards. Read the  standards.
  • Program/organisation structure OGA is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of the Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA). Information regarding the company’s structure and board of directors is outlined on the BFA website and can be accessed via the OGA website.
  • Program funding BFA is a not-for-profit organisation with the aim of progressing the sustainable development of the organic industry. BFA is funded by membership fees and promotional contributions along with promotional initiatives and sponsorships for publications and other activities. OGA charges for its certification services and this funds its operating costs.

Consumer contact details
Phone: 07 3350 5716
Email: organiccrusader@bfa.com.au

RAINFOREST ALLIANCE CERTIFIED

Logo-RainforestAlliance

  • Logo seen on coffee, cocoa and tea. See details
  • What it means The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal indicates all or some of the ingredients come from certified sustainably managed farms or forests that meet standards for environmental protection, social justice and economic management.
  • Why it falls short Rainforest Alliance ticked all boxes bar one – we initially struggled to make contact with this program in Australia to send out our survey, and it’s difficult for Australian consumers generally to call the program for information or to give feedback.
  • Program standards Read the standards.
  • Program/organisation structure Rainforest Alliance is an international environment and sustainable development organisation. It owns the rights to the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal, which can be awarded to farms that meet the standards for sustainable farming set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) or to forests that meet Forest Stewardship Council standards. SAN is a coalition of conservation groups, including the Rainforest Alliance. The coalition develops and owns the SAN standards. The website contains annual reports and information about the Board of Directors and other key staff members.
  • Program funding The Rainforest Alliance is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt charitable organisation under Section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code of the United States of America. The Rainforest Alliance Certified program is primarily funded through government funding (for example USAID, GTZ); foundation grants (for example Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); funding via multilateral bodies such as the UNDP; and certification fees paid by farmers. The Rainforest Alliance does not earn any fee from the use of the seal on end products.

Consumer contact details
Phone: No dedicated phone number for Australian consumers.
Email: info@ra.org

RSPCA APPROVED FARMING SCHEME

Logo-RSPCA-AF-copy

  • Logo seen on eggs and pork and soon, chicken meat. See details
  • What it means Eggs and pork stamped with the RSPCA “Paw of Approval” have been produced to the RSPCA’s animal welfare standards for layer hens and pigs. These are higher than required by law or the relevant codes of practice.
  • Why it falls short In addition to unscheduled assessments, producers under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme undergo rigorous routine on-site assessments at least every six months. However, the assessors are RSPCA staff, not independent third party auditors. The development and any subsequent reviews of the scheme’s standards have not been open to broad public consultation, and there’s been no formal opportunity for consumers to have input.
  • Program standards Read about the RSPCA's layer hen standards and pig standards.
  • Program/organisation structure The scheme is governed by the RSPCA Australia Board. The board is made up of one elected representative from each of the eight state and territory RSPCAs. These individuals are elected by the membership of their state’s RSPCA body, which is made up of individual community members. RSPCA Australia is responsible for setting the standards, assessment of producers participating, or wishing to participate in the scheme, operational and administrative procedures and outcomes. See governance details
  • Program funding The RSPCA and the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme are both not-for-profit. Income for the scheme comes from fees relating to initial producer approval and assessments and royalties on sale of approved products. This income is used for administration, monitoring and marketing of the Scheme and its Approved Products. All income from the Approved Farming Scheme is kept quarantined from other RSPCA income.

Consumer contact details
Phone: 02 6282 8300
Email: rspca@rspca.org.au

Tuna with a dolphin-safe logo is a better option than one without if you’re concerned about dolphin welfare, and FREPA accredited products meet free-range standards, but the programs behind these logos show a number of shortcomings when assessed against our criteria.

DOLPHIN SAFE

Logo-Dolphin-Safe

  • Logo seen on tuna. See details.
  • What it means The logo indicates methods of fishing that harm dolphins have not been used to catch the tuna. Outlawed methods include the use of drift gill nets and intentional chasing, netting or encirclement of dolphins during a fishing trip.
  • Why it falls short The Earth Island Institute's International Dolphin Safe monitoring program only has on-board observers for fishing trips in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (the primary ocean region where tuna are known to swim with dolphins), and only then on fishing vessels that are 400 gross tonnes and above. There’s no single industry-wide logo for manufacturers signed to its Dolphin Safe standard, and it’s difficult for Australian consumers to call the program for information or to give feedback.
  • Program standards Read the standards.
  • Program/organisation structure The Dolphin Safe International Monitoring Program is part of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), sponsored by the Earth Island Institute (EII). EII is a not-for-profit, non-governmental conservation organisation based in the US – see its website for governance details.
  • Program funding EII receives the bulk of its funding from donations by individuals and philanthropic foundations. EII does not require funding or donations from a company as a requirement to receive "Dolphin Safe" approval. It encourages tuna companies to provide reimbursement funding to help maintain International Monitoring Program expenses, but its core programs receive no funding from the tuna industry in order to maintain the independence of Earth Island Institute's International Monitoring Program and other campaigns to protect marine mammals.

Consumer contact details
Phone: No dedicated phone number for Australian consumers.
Email: marinemammal@earthisland.org

 

Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia (FREPA)

Logo-FREPA 

  • Logo seen on eggs, chicken and turkey meat.
  • What it means The logo indicates the product has met Free Range Egg & Poultry Australia (FREPA)’s free-range standards, which include standards for animal welfare, animal health, environmental sustainability, land care and food safety. Other members are processors and packers.
  • Why it falls short FREPA doesn’t publish information about the products it certifies and its standards haven’t been open to broad public consultation. Also, conflict of interest is unavoidable as its council is made up of members, all of whom are free-range producers. Its standards are developed and agreed on by its members – the same members who want to use the logo.
  • Program standards Read the standards.
  • Program/organisation structure FREPA is governed by a council of members. Voting members of FREPA are all free range producers/growers.
  • Program funding FREPA is a not-for-profit organisation. Income for the scheme comes from membership and licensing fees.

Consumer contact details
Phone: 1300 367 306
Email: frepa@frepa.com.au

The diversity of the programs’ objectives makes it impossible to compare and rate their underpinning standards or criteria. In order to separate the best from the rest, CHOICE identified a number of key criteria relating to the way a scheme is managed and operated. We used survey responses and additional information from websites, promotional literature and annual reports to evaluate against these criteria.

Transparency We confirmed whether or not the following information is publicly available:

  • logo standards/criteria
  • how the program is funded
  • program board members and governance.

Consumer friendly The scheme should be helpful and accessible to Australian consumers. We checked that consumers:

  • can easily access published information about which products are endorsed
  • can call a local or free-call number for information and to give feedback
  • are formally given opportunities to provide input into decisions about the program.

Conflict of interest We confirmed that mechanisms are in place to avoid and manage any conflicts of interest in decision-making about the scheme.

Stakeholder engagement We checked whether program standards/criteria are open to broad public consultation, which is required under international standards (ISO65) for bodies operating product certification systems. Public consultation can improve a scheme’s transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.

Equitable participation Fee structures should ensure any producer or manufacturer can participate in the scheme, regardless of size or profits. We checked that schemes have fee schedules that are tiered, based on a percentage of sales or a similar structure that caters fairly for producers of different sizes.

Verification All programs in this review have rigorous procedures for verifying compliance with their standards/criteria. To be considered very rigorous, we required verification to be conducted:

  • onsite for all producers/farmers or for each product (as applicable)
  • by independent third-party auditors
  • at least annually.
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