'Sustainability' Is Big In Food Retail, But Hard To Prove

When you head to the supermarket, you have a lot of choices these days. You can choose from any number of brands, prices and labels. You can go organic, buy local, make sure your food is antibiotic free. And now you can add “sustainable” to the grocery list.

Retailers and restaurants like Whole Foods, Chipotle and Walmart are all providing information to consumers about how “sustainably” some of their products were produced. But it’s hard to know just what “sustainably” means and how to judge whether food was produced in a “sustainable” way.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Abbie Fentress Swanson of Harvest Public Media reports on the rise of sustainability in our food.


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When you head to supermarket these days, you can go organic, you can buy local, you can make sure your food is antibiotic-free, and now you can add sustainable to that list. Retailers and restaurants like Whole Foods, Chipotle and Wal-Mart are providing information to consumers about how sustainably some of their products were produced. But it's hard to figure exactly what that means.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Harvest Public Media's Abbie Fentress Swanson reports.

BILL HEFFERNAN: These are what we call heritage animals. These are St. Croix sheep. There's some Red Poll cattle coming in across there.

ABBIE FENTRESS SWANSON, BYLINE: That's Bill Heffernan on his farm near Rocheport, Missouri. Besides raising heritage sheep, cattle and horses here, Heffernan sells hogs to Chipotle and Whole Foods. Five years ago, Whole Foods asked farmers in his hog collective to sell the company humanely raised meat. That means the farmers have to follow strict sets of rules so Whole Foods can label their products as, quote, "raised with care." For starters, farmers aren't allowed to keep sows and metal stalls called farrowing or gestation crates.

HEFFERNAN: Some of our members still are at the stage one. Many of us are up at stage three. And that means our animals do have access to outside space. And none of them - we don't use farrowing stalls.

SWANSON: Getting step-certified by an auditor takes time and costs Heffernan about $1,500 in annual fees. That can be a barrier to entry for small farmers.

HEFFERNAN: First of all, they look around the property for about two hours and then sit down, and you've got this booklet to fill out like as if it's never going to end. And I'm saying, just for 300 pigs, I've got to answer all these questions?

SWANSON: Those quality audits and piles of paperwork allow Whole Foods to charge more for the meat it says was raised humanely. It's one aspect of the retailer's focus on sustainability because, increasingly, consumers are willing to pay more for foods they believe were sustainably produced, like humanely raised pork, free-range chicken and pesticide-free wine. There's just one problem: What does sustainable actually mean?

ROB MYERS: So there's not necessarily just one certification that people are going to find stamped on their food that says: This is a sustainable food product. We don't have that yet, and we're not likely to have it anytime soon.

SWANSON: Rob Myers is one of the directors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. He says consumers sometimes mistakenly confuse sustainable with organic or local.

MYERS: But local in itself does not necessarily connotate sustainable. Because as you're implying, you could have a lot of pesticides applied, or you could have a farm that is not preventing their soil from washing away or contaminating local water sources, or doing other things that most people would say, that's not very good from a sustainability standpoint.

SWANSON: Whole Foods' answer to the sustainability question is labeling. It is unrolling a new sustainability ratings system on all of its produce and flowers by September. They'll rate these items as good or better or best on the label, and each rating will correspond to the way the product was grown.

The company already has a similar ratings system for seafood and meat. Here's Margaret Wittenberg, a vice president at Whole Foods.

MARGARET WITTENBERG: We have had customers asking about sustainability, you know, how is this particular kale raised or where do these flowers come from? What is the sustainability of our earth? How did the plants work into that?

SWANSON: Still, every retailer defines sustainability differently. Whole Foods is using factors like soil health, how pollinators are affected by pesticides and farm worker wages to score its products. Safeway and Chipotle have pledged to buy pork only from producers who phase out gestation crates. One way Walmart gauges sustainability is through trying to limit the amount of fertilizer farmers apply to their fields. And now shoppers can put a price on what they care about. But with so many definitions out there, how do consumers know what is and isn't worth paying extra for?

ERIC CARTWRIGHT: It can be frustrating when you're trying to talk to someone and explain what you're thinking and stuff. I think there are so many factors that have to considered.

SWANSON: Eric Cartwright is executive chef for Campus Dining Services at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In the kitchen of a popular student hangout here, Cartwright says he's responsible for making sure two and a half million meals a year get served. In a perfect world, all of that food will be sustainably produced.

CARTWRIGHT: So I think our approach is to really look at what practices are being used on the farm, whether that be something that's five miles away or 500 miles away. You know, and especially, as we work with a lot of our smaller farmers, there's a relationship that happens.

SWANSON: But it's not possible for all of us to have that kind of close relationship with the people that grow and raise our food. For now, we have to rely on information that retailers and restaurants provide on labels and menus to determine the sustainability of our food. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Abbie Fentress Swanson in Columbia, Missouri.

PFEIFFER: Abbie's story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.