Consumers’ Right to Information

Over on my Food Ethics Blog, I recently posted a piece on the oft-proclaimed “right to know what I’m eating.” That right is often asserted, but seldom explained. Do we have a right to know everything about what we’re eating? Basically I argue that rights are a very serious kind of moral mechanism, to be used only to protect our most important, central interests.

Now, that blog entry was specifically about the right to know about your food. The (claimed or actual) right to information about your food is of course just one among many (claimed or actual) rights for consumers to know things about the products they’re buying.

Now, sometimes rights arise from government action: under food labelling laws in Canada and the U.S., for example, consumers have a right to know the basic nutritional characteristics — including calories — of the packaged foods they buy. So, does this right follow the pattern I suggested above? Is knowing the precise caloric content of a serving of Special K, or the amount of niacin it contains, essential to protecting or promoting my central interests? Clearly not. But take note: I’m not at all saying it’s not useful information; it clearly is. But people did manage to get by in life prior to such labelling rules. So having that information isn’t essential to protecting an individual’s interests.

Now, some will think this is a counter-example to the (very basic) theory of rights I proposed in my food info blog entry. Here, we have a socially-acknowledged right to a piece of information (calories in your breakfast cereal), despite the fact that it’s a piece of information that is hardly essential to my well-being.

But I think a better lesson can be drawn, here, and that’s that well-justified consumer-protection laws (like nutritional labelling laws) aren’t necessarily designed to protect the rights of individuals. They’re better thought of as being designed to promote the well-being of populations. Knowing how many calories are in a bowl of Special K might not be essential to protecting my interests. But (so the thinking goes) there’s a good chance that forcing companies to reveal that information will result in a more calorie-aware population, which is a good result.

The distinction ‘under the hood,’ here, is an important one. Sometimes we attribute rights to individuals (e.g., the right to a piece of information) because we think that right is owed, morally, to that person. And sometimes we attribute rights to individuals instrumentally, as ways of achieving broader social goals.

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Addendum:
I’ll likely return to this set of issues soon. There are lots of things consumers have an interest in knowing. For example, I’d love for the stereo salesperson at Best Buy to tell me if a competitor sells the same item cheaper. Do I have the right to that info? Stay tuned.

5 comments so far

  1. Constance C. on

    Hi Chris,

    I disagree with your statement above, “Is knowing the precise caloric content of a serving of Special K, or the amount of niacin it contains, essential to protecting or promoting my central interests? Clearly not.” While this information may just be a nice to have for you, for anyone with a chronic illness the information provided on food labels is “essential to protecting and promoting my central interests”. Constance

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Constance:

    Thanks for that. An example would help…can you suggest one?

    At any rate, the question would then become one of whether labelling all food products is the right way to protect the interests of people with those highly specialized needs. I would think that people with special nutritional needs end up knowing more about the nutritional characteristics of foods than is ever going to be featured on a package, anyway. But your point is a useful one none the less.

    (As an aside, it’s also worth noting that only packaged food is required to provide that information. If you want to know how much Vitamin C is in an apple, you’re on your own, chronic illness or not.)

    Chris.

  3. […] no one thinks we have a right to. 2) Over on my Business Ethics Blog, I did a related piece on the Consumers’ Right to Information. 3) I will soon be posting something here on the Food Ethics Blog about voluntary labelling and the […]

  4. Robert on

    Does the U.S. Public have a Right to Know where Food product was made at Like in other Countries?

    What if the Company says I cant give you that Infomation!

    Like Dried Meats that say Packed in U.S.A.
    If requested Information and were told I cant give that
    Information.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Robert:

      I don’t know about what rights you have under US law (I’m neither a lawyer nor an American), but morally no I don’t think you have a right to that information. But you do of course have a right not to deal with companies that are not as transparent as you’d like them to be!

      Chris.


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