Warning: Process Food Labels May Cause Confusion
Consumers want clear information about the food they purchase, but labels do not always come through in a satisfactory manner. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology offers a new paper about this issue: Process Labeling of Food: Consumer Behavior, the Agricultural Sector, and Policy Recommendations. Click here for access to free downloads of the full Issue Paper and the one-page Ag QuickCAST.
The authors of this timely paper provide needed clarity about the labeling controversy. They examine what is known regarding consumer reactions to process labels; they identify the legal framework for process labeling; and they provide policy recommendations that highlight the pros and cons of labels. The following editorial from the authors explains their key points.
Should Process Labeling of Food Be Banned?
By Kent D. Messer, Shawna Bligh, Marco Costanigro, and Harry M. Kaiser
The simple phrase “You are what you eat” is commonly taught to children and then repeated throughout one’s life. This phrase speaks to the intimate connection between individuals’ food choices and their health—and even their personal identity. Yet most consumers rarely grow their own food, which means that what people “are” is completely out of their control. Given today’s global food supply chain, consumers cannot directly observe the production process that created the food they eat, which is a situation that economists refer to as asymmetric information and one that is ripe for mistrust.
In response to this situation, consumers are frequently exposed to labels communicating specific processing aspects of food production, such as Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, rbST Free, and Free Range. Increasingly, policymakers are looking into this issue because at least 26 states have proposed labeling legislation for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 2014, Vermont required manufacturers to label food if it contained GMOs.
At the root of the push for mandatory process labeling is the desire for individual control and diffuse distrust in the safety and health of the food produced by modern agriculture. Consumers associate process labels to differences in product quality, but also to other ethical, social, and environmental consequences of food production. When labeling empowers people with knowledge and better-informed quality expectations, it increases the number of choices available for consumers and opens new market opportunities for producers. Labels can also help remove harmful ingredients from the food we eat, as happened with trans fats.
Unfortunately, these win-win situations do not always materialize. The fundamental problem with process labels is that they are subject to consumers’ interpretation; that is, the implications of adopting one process instead of another are left to consumers to figure out. How can we verify that organic food is making us healthier? How do we know that it is helping protect the environment? Many people have opinions—especially food gurus, self-asserted health experts, and environmental activists—and these people seek to persuade the public. Yet these questions should be evaluated by careful science.
Without such an evaluation, labeling the benefits for a new product can unfairly cast the conventionally produced product in a negative light. This type of stigmatization of the conventional product can be particularly problematic in situations in which no scientific evidence exists that the food produced with the conventional process causes harm, or even that it is compositionally any different.
The unintended consequences of process labeling can be increased food prices and the stunting of scientific and technological advances in agriculture. This last issue is particularly troubling as society seeks to reduce poverty and food insecurity in the United States and throughout the world.
Given these problems with process labels, should they be banned? We say no.
Labels can be good for consumers, especially in situations in which the product has been scientifically demonstrated to harm human health. Labels can also provide producers with new market opportunities. Additionally, banning labels undermines consumer trust in the agricultural sector.
Labeling claims should be true and scientifically verifiable, however. This condition should hold for all claims related to labor practices, environmental impact, or effects on human health. In particular, labels claiming a product “contains” or is “free of” a certain production process should also include information on the package stating the current scientific consensus regarding the importance of this attribute.
Finally, producers and policymakers need to be more imaginative about next-generation process labels. For instance, combining smartphone technology and quick response (QR) codes on food products could provide consumers with valuable information. Also, moving away from simple all-or-nothing labels would help because they rarely tell an accurate story. For example, instead of coffee being either labeledas “bird friendly” or not, it could be given a 1–10 score on its environmental impact as determined by a third-party scientific assessment. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has been using four levels for construction.
Bringing these approaches to the context of agricultural products would be a positive step forward for both consumers and producers and would be much better than banning labels.