Farm workers
Organizations such as Equitable Food Initiative look at how farm workers are treated.

Ethical claims trending

Ms. Moskow identifies a move away from talking about what a product is “free-from,” toward how it’s ethically sourced and holistically raised. She said millennials are attracted to companies communicating transparency, “but also to those doing social good.” Tony’s Chocolonely, Portland, Ore., for example, has an overarching mission to eradicate slavery in the chocolate trade.

“So they talk about how ethically sourced their product is,” Ms. Moskow said.

One of the newest food product certifications and icons appearing on labels is promoted by the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), a non-profit, skill building organization for the produce industry.

“EFI looks at the way farm workers are treated and, in turn, how that impacts food safety and pesticide use, and rewards farming operations that do well in those three areas,” said Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer, Bon Appetit Management Company, Palo Alto, Calif., an on-site restaurant company operating 650-plus venues.

Supplementary marketing materials — including EFI stickers on clamshells of strawberries, for example — are currently being introduced to supermarkets including Whole Foods. Ms. Ganzler expects to see a growing number of food service locations and retailers grouping similar certifications under proprietary icons like these.

Antibiotic- and hormone-free

At Mintel, Ms. Johnson sees a substantial number of claims around “humanely-raised,” “farm-raised” and “free-range.” “Consumers value ethical, humane claims,” she said.

Free-range chickens
Consumers are increasingly valuing animal welfare claims.

In April fast food chicken chain KFC, a business unit of Yum! Brands, Inc., joined a number of restaurant brands by taking a stance on antibiotics used in meat, stating that by 2018 it will be serving chicken raised without “medically important antibiotics.” An increasing number of chefs, manufacturers, grocers and food service brands are climbing on the “no-antibiotic,” “hormone-free” claims bandwagon, because consumers are concerned about antibiotic resistance. But, verbiage matters, as claims — which are not government regulated, though a US Department of Agriculture Process Verified seal can signal that inspectors have visited the farm to confirm antibiotics were not used — range widely in terminology and in practice, from “no antibiotics ever,” to “no growth-promoting antibiotics.”

Communicating call-outs

In an ingredient-driven industry, it’s clear that today’s consumers are also all about quality. For restaurants, the deep-dive to clarify a position or describe an initiative is often available on the company’s website or on in-store marketing formats rather than on the menu board. Icons are a big part of the solution for Ms. Ganzler.

“It’s a judgment call as we’re trying to give people information at point-of-purchase on the menu but have it not look like a NASCAR uniform,” she said.

Of the 10 icons the company currently uses, a maximum of two are included at any given time.

“So if all these apply to an item — for example, vegan, local, organic, without G.M.O.-containing ingredients, etc. — we’d make sure, at the point-of-purchase, it gets the ‘made without-G.M.O.-containing’ icon because that’s about somebody’s safety, and we’d also use the ‘vegetarian’ icon because it’s about someone’s strict dietary preference," said Ganzler.

Terms like “local” and “organic" would be communicated through the dish description.

“The key lies in signaling healthy, not declaring it,” Ms. Moskow said, as consumers look for visual cues at both restaurants and supermarkets. Certification is eventually a cost of doing — and growing — business, she said, and today’s customers increasingly do read labels. She suggests focusing first on “delicious language,” providing short, clear package information until your company can afford or earn the sought-after label certification.