A tag that says simply "Best" hangs next to a price tag for Dr. McDougall's oatmeal on a shelf at Giant Food. A tag below Diamond sliced almonds reads "Good," while another below a can of Amy's Organic Soups says "Great."
The designations are part of a ratings system the Landover-based grocer is testing in nine of its stores that measures the sustainability of food, both fresh and processed.
Giant's pilot program, developed by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based HowGood, comes as more and more consumers want to know how their food is grown and made, and retailers are looking for ways to give them information in a digestible way. One grocery analyst dubbed 2017 the year of sustainability for groceries as consumers begin to embrace the idea much as many started seeking organic products in recent years.
"Sometimes it can be difficult for consumers to read through the product label and understand exactly what the health benefits are," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant, the Baltimore area's largest supermarket chain. "This is a continuation of our commitment to make it easier to help customers identify healthier and more sustainable products that we offer."
In the past three years, HowGood has expanded its services into grocers in 26 states and more than 250 stores, including Roots Markets in Clarksville and Olney and most recently the Giant pilot. Founders of the independent research organization, which launched in 1998, spent years collecting data and working with experts to come up with a simple rating system based on up to 70 indicators. Factors include conditions and wages for production workers, treatment of animals, use of pesticides and antibiotics, and greenhouse gas emissions, among other indicators.
HowGood can rate about 90 percent of food products in a store with its database of more than 200,000 rated products that consumers can access through a mobile app. The system allocates ratings of "good," "great" or "best" to qualifying products. A good rating means the product falls in the top 25 percent for sustainability, a great rated product is in the top 15 percent and best means top 5 percent.
"The idea is to use that to empower the consumer and get it out there in front of them," offering a glimpse of the entire production process, said Alexander Gillett, CEO of HowGood. "How good would you feel about the process if you watched the whole thing, and if you did that for every product in the store, which would you put your money toward? That's what we're trying to do."
The food sustainability movement is consumer-driven, said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst and editor of SupermarketGuru.com.
"More consumers, especially millennials and Gen X, want to know about sustainability and are choosing what brands are important and what brands they're going to buy based on what companies are doing as it relates to sustainability and transparency," Lempert said.
It shows up in stores in terms on products such as cage-free and pasture-raised as well as halal and kosher. Perdue Foods, the Salisbury-based chicken producer, announced what animal rights advocates called unprecedented animal welfare reforms last summer in part due to growing demands for accountability from consumers.
"Our consumers today ... want transparency," said Jim Perdue, the company's chairman, in announcing the reforms. "They want to know a lot about what we do, and especially find a lot of interest in how we raise our chickens."
While some shoppers are motivated primarily by price, others say they're more likely to choose sustainable goods, even if they have to pay more.
Shopping last week at Giant in Ellicott City, one of three Giants where HowGood's rating system is being tested, along with stores in Timonium and Severna Park, Mutiah Ipaye said she looks for less processed food and produce grown without pesticides. Ipaye, a clinical researcher, said she reads label ingredients carefully.
"I try to eat clean, even though it can be expensive some times, but I feel like health is wealth, so I ensure that I'm eating good-quality food," the Ellicott City resident said. "I'm very picky on what I buy."
Some of the larger chains have been slow to adopt ratings systems while they try to figure out whether they should develop their own or adopt one such as HowGood's, Lempert said. Some organic and natural food retailers, such as Whole Foods, have had longer histories of making consumers aware of various forms of sustainability.
"One of our core values has been creating a transparent shopping experience where people can understand the entire life cycle, if you will, of their food," said Annie Cull, a Whole Foods spokeswoman.
Whole Foods' standards are explained to shoppers through store signage, such as its decades-old policy of only selling food with no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or sweeteners and a system that assesses produce and flower growing practices based on human health, worker welfare and the environment. At the seafood counter, consumers see color-coded sustainability ratings for wild caught fish.
The retailer also uses a five-step animal welfare rating system for fresh beef, pork, chicken and turkey that rates various levels of animal treatment practices. It relies on another system to rate household cleaning products.
Lempert said more retailers could benefit from giving shoppers access to sustainability ratings and believes HowGood has done a good job disclosing information.
"You understand how and why they are rating certain products," Lempert said.
The Evening Sun
At the Giant in Ellicott City, customers are greeted with signs explaining the ratings.
"This company working with us is making the customer's job so much easier when they come in and want to buy a sustainably produced product," said Jack Eaton, store manager. "This company takes that step out of the customer's hands. They can tell this product is sustainably produced, they treat their workers well and it's not leaving a negative impact on the environment."
Alana Alkire, a social worker at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, said she would need to know more about what's involved in HowGood's system, but, armed with more information, she would be more likely to buy a highly rated product, particularly if the ratings relate to health and production.
"It's a good idea," Alkire said. "It's good to know more about what you're buying."
Besides influencing shoppers' choices, HowGood also hopes to nudge producers to improve their practices, which in turn should lead to improved ratings in the stores.
"We want to reward producers who have the best standards and give them a reason to improve their standards," Gillett said. "If people shift dollars toward more sustainable products ... it justifies for companies why they should shift their practices toward more sustainable practices."