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Do food products that are certified organic, kosher, biodynamic, etc. cost more? And if so, do grocery chains make these higher-priced food products equally available across different communities?

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

Do food products that are certified — organic, kosher, biodynamic, etc. — cost more? And if so, do grocery chains make these higher-priced food products equally available across different communities?

Those questions are at the center of a research project that looked at the price of rice, certification labeling and product availability in Salt Lake City. The research team consisted of David Carter, an assistant professor of political science who researches organic food regulation, and Natalie Fillerup and Hannah Stevens, students in an environmental justice class taught by Adrienne Cachelin, an associate professor in environmental and sustainability studies.

The team looked at seven different types of certification labels and 161 rice products available in 10 grocery stores, selected based on geographic location, store size, store brand and socioeconomic variation.

Carter and Cachelin discuss the community engaged learning project and the opportunity it provided for their students:

Are certification labels becoming more common on food products and why?

Yes, certification labels — and all types of product labels — are becoming more common on food products.  Much of this comes from a combination of consumers paying more attention to what is in the foods they buy and how they are produced, and the evermore complex nature of our food system.  Consumers are looking for information about their foods, which labels provide, and are looking for assurances that product claims — for example, that the food is truly organic — are credible, which certification provides.  Much of David’s research focuses on how certification labels are administered and how credibility is maintained, particularly in regards to USDA organic certification.

How were students involved in the project?

We met at the Global Change and Sustainability Center annual retreat and spoke of an idea for a student research project examining the relationship between food certification and price. This was a great fit for Adrienne’s Environmental Justice course as all of these students do community-engaged work that has implications for justice.

Why did you choose to focus this study on the price of rice?

David was originally thinking of looking at granola, since he noticed a lot of different types of certification labels on granola. Adrienne pointed out that if we are interested in the equity implications of certification, it would be preferable to choose a product that is more common across different populations and cultures. We settled on rice because it is found in just about any grocery store and can be found across most cultures.

How did you go about the research?

We worked on the broad project outlines together. We decided the central objectives were to better understand the connection between product certifications and price, and the equity implications of that relationship, such as do some communities have less access to certified products if higher prices mean they are less likely to be sold in those communities? Hannah Stevens and Natalie Fillerup, the students who collected the data, and David fine-tuned the research design. Hannah and Natalie decided which grocery stores to visit, and then drove around to 10 different Salt Lake City stores.  At each store, they documented the price and certification labels for every loose-grained rice product sold. They also took photos of the products so that we could pull more information later.

What did you find?

We found that certification labels are generally associated with higher product prices and that the more certifications a rice package displayed, the more it is likely to cost. It is important to note, however, that we have not yet taken other factors into account. For example, we did not include in the analysis the rice brands, which no doubt accounts for some of the price difference. This is something we are currently working on.

We were surprised to find certification labels on about 70 percent of the rice we looked at and that they appeared on rice products across the grocery stores regardless of the socioeconomic characteristics of the surrounding communities. This seems to indicate that, at least within city limits, most groups have relatively equal access to certified products. Access to products, however, does not equate to ability to buy.

Explain why this matters from an environmental justice point of view.

Food justice — a consideration of benefits and burdens regarding where, what and how food is grown, produced, accessed and eaten — is a central concern of environmental justice. Therefore, the higher price of certified products is an equity concern. What it means from a practical perspective is that individuals and families with constrained budgets are likely to have a harder time purchasing products with the qualities they desire.

These qualities might not be just about personal health, they may be about justice in other parts of the food system. For example, some consumers choose organic products knowing that the U.S. government estimates that more than 90 percent of agricultural workers have no access to health insurance, while pesticide drifts sicken thousands each year. In a world where consumers are increasingly expressing personal values through purchasing decisions, lower income folks can be impeded from living their values by the price premium associated with certified products.