Third Party Certifications

Third-party certifications (third parties being organizations like the USDA, etcetera) are often difficult to decipher. You may have found yourself sifting through grocery-store products, wondering if organic foods are worth the extra money or what some of the other labels even mean. So, I went ahead and compiled information on the two most confusing certifications (and two additional ones (I found myself getting sucked into the web)) to make the process of obtaining awareness more straightforward.


This certification is granted by the USDA. Per their website, “USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives.” For plants, this means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used during the growing process. For animals, this means that living conditions accommodated “natural behaviors” and feed contained organic substances. Additionally, organic meats must not have been treated with antibiotics or hormones.

On a macroscopic level, the USDAconsiders organic agriculture to be an “ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

So, while organic foods may not (per current research) have any added nutritional benefit, they should be contributing to a shift towards more sustainable agricultural practices. The question is whether or not you are willing to or in a position to pay the additional price for this cause.

Cage Free

This certification is also granted by the USDA. It took me a little while to figure this out, as I was redirected to both the FDA and the USDA in my search for the third party behind the “cage free” label.

Although “cage free” may sound nice on paper, in practice, it doesn’t grant very much benefit to hens. They are not confined to cages under this certification, but hens most likely still have very little space (there are no specific space requirements) and no access to the outdoors. However, this seems better than nothing. If you plan to purchase cage free eggs, check for the USDA seal.

If you are searching for eggs that were generated in more acceptable conditions, you might consider purchasing eggs that are certified humane. Again, certifications like this will raise the price of the eggs, so this is not an option for everyone.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC):

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is also a third-party certification program, but it is not a part of the USDA. The MSC certifies fisheries that practice sustainable fishing. Standards for this certification include: One, balanced fishing (e.g. leaving enough fish uncaught for the purpose of reproduction and a fully-functioning ecosystem), two, minimizing environmental impact (e.g. maintaining biodiversity), and three, maintaining appropriate fishery management.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC):

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), like the MSC, is separate from the USDA. This certification ensures the proper harvesting of lumber per certain regulations including but not limited to thorough documentation of land rights, the recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights, the maintenance of “the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities,” and biodiversity maintenance.


There are a huge number of additional certifications out there (Energy Star, Rainforest Alliance Certification, etcetera), and it can become difficult to sort through the wordiness of regulatory documents and find the basic facts pertaining to each label. However, it is becoming increasingly important that we educate ourselves and build our own awareness of what these labels are advertising and whether they are, indeed, promoting sustainability.

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