Neil Mermelstein

Neil H. Mermelstein

Many food and beverage labels bear certification logos to help consumers quickly determine whether food products meet their requirements. Some consumers want organic foods; others want to support efforts for sustainable farming, fair trade, and humane treatment of animals; and others want to avoid certain ingredients, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and gluten. Numerous organizations offer certification for specific standards and allow food and beverage companies and suppliers to use their certification logos or marks on their product labels to indicate that they meet those standards. There are many certification logos on food and beverage packages. Here are descriptions of some of them.

USDA Organic
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) allows use of its USDA Organic seal on products that meet the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program. To become certified, a farm or company must adopt organic practices and submit an application to a USDA-accredited third-party certifying agent, such as QAI and CCOF. The certifying agent reviews the application to verify that the practices meet USDA organic regulations, an inspector conducts an onsite inspection, and the certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report and issues a certificate if the applicant complies with the regulations. An annual review and inspection are required to maintain certification.

CCOF Certified Organic
CCOF is one of the many third-party USDA-accredited certifiers providing certification to the USDA organic standards. To obtain certification, farmers must provide an organic system plan that describes the operation and includes proof that the land is eligible for certification or that an ingredient in the product meets organic requirements. The organization also provides labeling guidelines explaining how the USDA and CCOF seals can be used.

Certified Grass-Fed Organic Livestock
The Certified Grass-Fed Organic Livestock program establishes stricter grass-fed standards for grass-fed organic dairy farming and products than the USDA’s organic program. Offered by Organic Plus Trust, this certification requires that dairy cows be fed a grass diet with no grain and given lots of pasture for grazing. A farm must first be certified as organic under the USDA regulations. Animals must receive 60% of their dry matter intake from pasture over at least a 150-day grazing season, compared to 30% and 120 days per USDA standards. Certification also requires verification by EarthClaims that grass-fed milk is segregated and authentic all the way to the end dairy product.

Rainforest Alliance Certified
The Rainforest Alliance certifies farm, forestry, and tourism enterprises that have been audited to meet standards for environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Farms must meet requirements of the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Standard, which is built on the principles of biodiversity conservation, improved livelihoods and human well-being, natural resource conservation, and effective planning and farm management systems, and they must demonstrate an increasingly higher degree of compliance with the organization’s continuous improvement criteria over a six-year period. To safeguard the certification program’s quality and integrity, the organization works with authorized and independent certification bodies. The Rainforest Alliance’s Chain of Custody Standard also tracks a product from the farm level through the various stages of trading, manufacturing, and warehousing to ensure that the seal accurately reflects the certified content or sourcing of that product.

Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of fair trade products in North America. Its logo signifies that rigorous standards have been met in the production, trade, and promotion of products from more than 80 countries. The organization audits transactions between companies and their suppliers worldwide to guarantee that farmers, farm workers, and fishermen work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities. Annual inspections are conducted on the certificate holders’ farms, processing facilities, and fisheries. The organization launched 176 private label products in 2018, working with such companies as Kroger and ALDI. The food products include coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar, coconut, quinoa, herbs and spices, produce, and seafood.

Food Alliance Certified
Food Alliance certifies that crop producers, livestock producers, shellfish farms, nurseries and greenhouses, and handling operations meet the organization’s standards for sustainable agricultural practices, safe and fair working conditions, and humane treatment of animals. Certification involves third-party site inspection. The organization has certified more than 500 farms and ranches in North America, most of which are mid-sized or smaller family-owned and -operated businesses, and more than 35 food processing and distribution facilities.

Certified Naturally Grown
Certified Naturally Grown offers peer-review certification to produce and livestock farmers and beekeepers who produce organic food for direct sale to their local communities, such as via farmers markets. Producers must meet core program requirements annually to maintain their certification. The standards for produce and livestock certification are based on the USDA’s organic standards. The organization developed its own standards for apiary certification based on organic principles and is doing the same for mushrooms and aquaponic production. 

Non-GMO Project Verified
The Non-GMO Project is committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. Companies provide documentation of their ingredients and their manufacturing facility to a third-party technical administrator to determine whether the products meet the project’s standard for GMO avoidance. GMO testing and an onsite inspection may be required, and verification must be renewed each year.

Global Animal Partnership
The Global Animal Partnership has developed a comprehensive tiered animal-welfare standards program for beef cattle, broiler chickens, pigs, turkeys, meat sheep, meat goats, laying hens and pullets, and bison. All farms and ranches must be certified to enter the program; subsequent steps reflect improvements in meeting the standard criteria. Certification involves an initial audit of each farm or ranch in the supply chain by an independent third-party auditor, followed by visits to each of those farms or ranches every 15 months so that a different season is audited each time. Third-party animal-welfare audits of slaughter facilities are also required. Whole Foods Market is among the retailers utilizing the certification program for its beef, chicken, pork, and turkey in the meat department.

Marine Stewardship Council Certified
The MSC program is the most credible and recognized global standard for sustainable fishing. Certification is open to all fisheries that catch marine or freshwater fish and shellfish in the wild. The organization’s Fisheries Standard requires that a fishery be sustainable, minimize environmental impact, and be managed effectively. Fisheries are assessed by accredited third-party certification bodies, such as Intertek. Certification is valid for up to five years, and annual audits are conducted. The council’s Chain of Custody Standard assures that products bearing the logo can be traced throughout the supply chain back to a certified fishery. The certification mark can be found on fresh, frozen, and canned foods, including pet food.

Animal Welfare Approved
A Greener World audits, certifies, and supports independent family farmers and ranchers raising their animals outdoors on pasture or range. The organization has animal-welfare standards for each species, covering everything from breeding to slaughter. Certification involves auditing the farm/ranch and slaughter process at least once a year. The organization also offers grass-fed and non-GMO certifications.

American Humane Certified
American Humane, the largest third-party animal-welfare auditing program, certifies that producers meet the organization’s science-based, species-specific animal welfare standards. The standards cover everything from adequate space to air and water quality, heating, lighting, shade, and the animals’ ability to engage in natural behaviors. Certification involves an initial onsite inspection of the operation to assess compliance with the standards, followed by annual audits.

Certified Humane
Humane Farm Animal Care certifies that meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products come from animals that have been raised in facilities that meet the organization’s animal-care standards. The standards specify that animals must have ample space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress; have ample fresh water and be fed a healthy diet of quality feed (without animal by-products or added antibiotics or hormones); and never be kept in cages, crates, or tie stalls. Producers must comply with food safety and environmental regulations, and processors must comply with American Meat Institute standards. Annual inspections of farms, ranches, and slaughter facilities in the program are conducted by species experts.

United Egg Producers Certified
United Egg Producers certifies that eggs are produced by hens raised on farms dedicated to responsible science-based methods to ensure optimal hen care for both cage and cage-free housing. More than 85% of eggs produced in the United States come from farms that participate in the program. Certification involves verification by third-party audits that the farms meet the organization’s Animal Husbandry Guidelines.

Certified Gluten-Free
The Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization provides certification services to producers of gluten-free products. Certification involves risk assessment, plant audits, equipment testing, and product testing in the plant and at point of consumer purchase. All finished products and ingredients must contain no more than 10 ppm of gluten, and barley-based ingredients are not allowed. Auditors conduct an initial inspection and annual inspections of every facility, and companies must submit finished-product testing results on a regular basis for review. The organization also offers gluten-free certification for foodservice.

Certified Vegan
The Vegan Awareness Foundation certifies products that do not contain animal products or by-products and that have not been tested on animals. The foundation’s Certified Vegan logo, the only third-party vegan logo in the United States, appears on more than 10,000 products from more than 1,000 companies. Companies must submit a list of products and their ingredients, specifying the type of ingredient and its source, and signed statements that there has been no animal testing on the finished product and that no animal by-products were used in the processing or the finished product.

American Heart Association Certified
The American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Food Certification Program certifies that a product meets the association’s nutrition criteria and regulatory requirements for making coronary heart disease claims. Companies submit substantiation and renew certification on a regular basis to use the association’s heart-check mark. Independent third-party lab testing may also be conducted.

Whole Grain Stamp
The Oldways Whole Grains Council authorizes the use of its Whole Grain Stamp on more than 12,000 products. Companies that manufacture whole-grain products provide information about each product to the council for approval. The 100% stamp indicates that all the grain ingredients are whole grain and a serving provides at least 16 grams of whole grain; the 50%+ stamp indicates that at least half of the grain ingredients are whole grain and provide at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving; and the basic stamp indicates that a product contains at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving but may contain more refined grain than whole.

NSF and QAI Certified
NSF International and its subsidiary Quality Assurance International (QAI) offer a variety of certification programs, including USDA Organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO. Certification involves regular onsite inspections of manufacturing facilities and regular testing of products to ensure that they meet standards.

Kosher Certification
Kosher certification assures consumers that products bearing an organization’s certified-kosher logo meet Jewish dietary rules. Certification involves review and supervision of all ingredients, plant equipment, and manufacturing processes. Certification logos also indicate whether the product is dairy (containing dairy ingredients or processed on dairy equipment), meat (containing meat or poultry or processed on meat equipment), or pareve (containing no milk or meat ingredients; fish and eggs are considered pareve). Major kosher-certification organizations include the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), OK Kosher Certification, KOF-K, and Star-K.

Halal Certification
Halal certification assures consumers that products bearing an organization’s certified-halal logo meet Islamic dietary rules. Halal slaughter certification involves inspection of the facilities to determine the compliance with halal standards. The halal status of the slaughtering plant, production process, and final product is monitored throughout the certification period. Major halal-food certification organizations include Halal Food Council USA, Islamic Food & Nutrition Council, and Islamic Services of America.




Neil H. Mermelstein, IFT Fellow, Editor Emeritus of Food Technology

[email protected]

About the Author

IFT Fellow
Editor Emeritus of Food Technology
[email protected]
Neil Mermelstein