It’s a problem that only today’s food police could have created — and loudly justified: Organic food products plastered with more brightly colored eco-logos than even the most devoted Granola could hope to decipher.

According to its web site, the U.S. Department of Agriculture already regulates “standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.” One need only examine the packaging of the food in question and locate a plain circular logo, half white and half green – a color scheme any limousine liberal could fall in love with – for proof that the product meets government standards.

What part of plain old “USDA Organic” don’t people understand? What more does anyone need?

“This establishment serves only activist-approved food items.”

Well, for one thing, the federal government lacks a stellar reputation when it comes to looking after details. Which is where a couple hundred international organizations and groups are only too happy to help. Or are they?

One reason organic products now contain more tiny-square logos than even the most socially connected blog is that organizations worldwide have come up with a whole host of micro-standards:

  • More than 80 countries, other than the U.S., have issued individual standards for organic products, crowding the logo competition
  • Ethical groups like Fairtrade International now have to deal with other ethical groups – that’s right, ethical competition, kind of like organized religion – as well as defections of groups like Fairtrade USA
  • Different food industries, such as those centered on, say, seafood or meat products, have established their own standards for what fries up as organic
  • Makers of genetically engineered foods (GMOs) aren’t required to label their foods as such, though some voluntarily do – adding to label crowding/confusion
  • Some food makers have begun issuing logos certifying carbon and water usage (a printing process that only adds to the carbon- and water-use footprints, no?)

And let’s not even talk about symbols that indicate the product has satisfied Kosher or other unique standards.

It is better to buy the right food than to enjoy it

When all is said and done, it’s hard to see how even the most ethically/organically/sustainability-minded consumer can make heads or tails out of some logo-laden labels. Even if it’s possible to ID every little square and squiggle on sight, the possibility exists that, to the uninitiated, some logos could be mistaken for advocating what they actually oppose. One that comes to mind is the logo that indicates certain fish weren’t caught in a way that harms dolphins. What if it conveys the opposite meaning to a buyer in a hurry?

Worse, what happens when newer logos – yes, even logos get re-thought and re-designed – replace the old ones. But only on the even more newly designed labels?

Someday, somewhere, someone will likely configure the uber-label – a larger square that, containing appropriately colored smaller squares, will convey all of the eco-label certifications with a single symbol. Or how about a QR code that sends all of that info to a smartphone, which, programmed for individual needs, tells the consumer whether the product is buyable or not?

And besides all of that — who says anything in a can is good for you anyway?

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