Agriculture Reference
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the market, and this frequently means compromises, particularly as labels expand.
Hardliners, or “depth” advocates, who seek higher standards lament the erosion of val-
ues from the early days of the movement, whereas commercially oriented or “breadth”
advocates (who want standards to be more easily attainable and, therefore, widespread)
are frustrated by what they perceive as the stubborn backwardness of the old guard
For labeled food that is produced outside wealthy countries, another critique is that
the rules are made in the United States and Western Europe and then implemented in
developing countries, reflecting and reinforcing a power imbalance between the North
and South in these certified supply chains. Vogel articulates what he sees as the danger
of this approach: “To the extent that voluntary labor codes replace rather than comple-
ment state regulations, developing country governments are essentially ceding their
sovereignty to the demands of western activists, who are the primary drivers and the
main 'consumers' of labor codes. Many labor codes essentially empower NGOs, rather
than developing country workers, and the two's priorities can often conflict” (Vogel
2008, p. 274). This line of argument emphasizes the inequitable nature of the historical
power imbalances that have shaped the geopolitical context in which labeling schemes
have emerged.
This chorus of critical voices calls into question the claims made by proponents of
labeled food that systems of certification can create positive impact for farmers and the
Existing research is not thorough enough to assess all these claims and critiques empiri-
cally, but it can illuminate some issues surrounding the impact of food certification. As
research on the impact of labeling standards tends to be standard-specific, I will focus
here on empirical evidence about the effects of Organic and Fair Trade Certification.
The research on organic foods and indicators of human health is most thoroughly
summarized in a meta-analysis by a team of research scientists at Stanford. The analysis
(Smith-Spangler et al. 2012) reviews findings from 17 human studies and 223 studies of
food, focusing on bacterial contamination, pesticide levels, human health biomarkers,
and nutrition levels in organic versus conventional food, and yields mixed results.
The results suggest that, although organic food may not systematically reduce bacte-
rial contamination, it may carry less antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional food.
The Stanford team found no statistically significant difference in levels of pathogenic
bacteria contamination overall, though a handful of studies documented differences: in
one, organic food was found to carry a slightly higher risk of E. coli contamination; in
another, organic food had 33  percent lower incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria;
another found organic grains to carry a lower level of the fungal toxin deoxynivalenol.
Research on pesticides is somewhat more suggestive. Studies of food content found
that organic produce had a 30  percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than
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