Surely you've noticed the proliferation of certifications advertising farmers' and food companies' virtuous commitments to fix the environment or promote health. These seals can reassure, but the sheer volume of them can also confound. How to choose between grass-fed, organic, hormone-free or free range?
Now imagine that you have to feed 50 million people a day in 80 countries around the world. And every day more of those people are demanding that the food you serve them be organic, gluten-free, or fair trade.
That's the job of Margaret Henry, director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility performance for food service giant Sodexo. And it can wield serious purchasing power for commodities like beef, considering it bought about 50 million pounds last year.
But according to Henry, keeping up with the 365 certifications out there is a big pain in the neck. So she's trying to find a solution.
Now, we know Sodexo doesn't have the rosiest track record when it comes to its food. It's certainly been dinged for selling unhealthy lunch items to school kids, among other things. But Henry says the company wants to tackle serious problems like climate change, agricultural pollution, overfishing, and food-related health epidemics by buying from more responsible suppliers.
But what defines the "right" food to purchase and serve? That's still up for discussion, as the debate evolves around issues like cages for chickens, gestation crates for pigs, and genetically engineered seeds.
Farmers can be certified to grow organic food, of course, but they can also earn approvals and seals for animal welfare, how friendly they are to birds, the kind of energy they use, and if their animals roamed freely (different from free range). The lists (here's just one from the Natural Resources Defense Council) go on and on.
"This is my job and I can't keep them all straight," Henry told The Salt after her talk at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., last week. "And I've seen farmers that are filling out 40 checklists a month for these things."
It's also hard when the advocacy groups behind most of these programs can't agree on what constitutes sustainable beef, or sustainable fish, or healthy vegetables, she says.
"There's a lot of competition between [the certifications] and I think it's really sad," says Henry. "All of these well-meaning people with all of these great ideas — these brilliant scientists — competing for who's right."
One of those well-meaning groups, the Rainforest Alliance, sees it another way. "Certification programs ensure sustainability and traceability throughout the supply chain – something that companies alone are unable to achieve due to the complexity of issues," Sabrina Vigilante, director of strategic initiatives at the Rainforest Alliance, tells The Salt in an email. "It is simply not possible for a company to develop a system that addresses all of this and ensure that standards are being met year after year."
Henry says that ideally, governments would help to move standards forward and stop the competition between NGOs. And one could argue that the U.S. government has done that with things like the National Organic Program. But Henry says that the government is largely silent on a lot of issues, like what constitutes truly "sustainable" beef.
So Sodexo is trying help, but it needs partners from the NGO, industry and academic worlds. "Because industry will never be trusted. Ever," she admits.
Sodexo is considering throwing its weight behind Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. It's a group of NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance and The Nature Conservancy, and really big buyers of beef like McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Cargill. According to Henry, the roundtable is coming up with a new standard for beef production that incorporates social and environmental concerns.
"The beef certifications that exist are not that useful, so we're going to make something new," says Henry. "And we may not even label it at all."