Archive for the ‘labelling’ Category

Herbal Remedy Scam

It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.

The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.

The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)

Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.

But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.

But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?

Food Labels that Matter

Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.

Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.

So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.

Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.

If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.

Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.

If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.

GMO Labelling and Consumer Rights

Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, regarding the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Because it’s about food, and because it’s taking place in California — a place where they take their food and their plebiscites seriously — the effort has been highly-publicized and highly politicized. California is both an important agricultural state and the state with perhaps the highest concentration of believers in the “Natural is Good” mantra. So it’s not surprising that the fight over Prop 37 is raising some dust.

One of the favourite slogans of the pro-Prop37 forces is the claim that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. This is a strong claim. Using the language of rights is a way of making the strongest possible kind of ethical claim, a way to draw a line in the topsoil, as it were. To say that someone has a right to something is quite different from saying merely that “it would be good if we did this” or “good people and good companies do this sort of thing.” It expresses a kind of moral absolute.

Indeed, if it were true that consumers really have a strong right to know what they’re eating — including, presumably, a right to know the genetic makeup of their food — then Prop 37 ought to be redundant. Any corporate citizen worth its salt makes every effort to respect its customers’ rights. When there is a right to some piece of information, institutions and methods of production need to be designed and implemented to respect and promote such rights.

But the idea that we have a right to know what we’re eating can’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if we define “what we’re eating” to include every aspect of the food’s makeup and indeed its history. Counter examples are easy. If you’re sipping a Coke, do you have a right to know the exact proportion of various ingredients? No, that’s a secret. If you’re eating in a restaurant, do you have the right to know the Chef’s method for searing your tuna steak so perfectly? Of course not — though you of course have the right to eat elsewhere.

Or consider this example: do you have the right to know whether the banana you’re eating was picked on a Thursday? (Imagine that Thursday is a holy day in your religion.) No, because recording and tracking day-of-harvest for boatloads of bananas would be difficult and expensive. Yes, the fact might matter to you a lot, but there are other ways of accommodating your interest in that information, short of attributing a morally weighty (let alone legally binding) right to it. Taken seriously, the right to know your food’s history even implies that the racist or sexist or homophobe has a right to personal information about the people who handled their food along the supply chain. And yet surely there is no such right to information that let’s someone act out their prejudices.

The point is that people might want to know all sorts of information about the food their eating. And that’s fine. But saying they have a right to it is a different thing altogether. Rights protect important interests. And there simply is no compelling evidence that anyone needs to know that genetic makeup of their food, or that a right to such information would protect any important consumer interest.

Addendum:
For more, see my previous entry on the “Right to Know What I’m Eating” over at my Food Ethics Blog.

Organic Foods and Bad Behaviour

Is labelling foods as “organic” a positive thing or not? The Environmental Working Group certainly thinks so. To support this notion, the EWG has just released its annual “dirty dozen” list, consisting of fruits and veggies that are especially high in pesticide residue.

But check out this recent study, which suggests that seeing and thinking about organic foods can make people less ethical. The researchers report that test subjects asked to look at and rank (basically, to focus on) either a bunch of organic-labelled foods or to look at and rank either comfort foods (e.g., ice cream) or a more neutral food (e.g., mustard). Following this, the test subjects were given tests to evaluate a) their willingness to help a needy stranger, and b) the harshness of their evaluation of various apparent moral transgressions. The result: people exposed to organic foods were both less likely to help others, and more likely to be harshly moralistic.

This is an interesting result in its own right, but it has particular implications for marketing. Very roughly, the study suggests that marketing produce as organic can have negative effects on consumers’ attitudes and behaviour. That is, the study says nothing negative about organic food itself, or about consuming it. The implication is specifically for labelling it and promoting it as organic.

Of course, we can’t immediately condemn such marketing based on this kind of evidence. It may well be that the net effect of selling lots of organic food outweighs the effect such marketing has on people’s attitudes and behaviour. But at very least, this should make us stop and think.

Now, it’s highly unlikely that this effect is specific to organic foods. Presumably, labelling food as organic here is relevant because for many people that label implies something virtuous. So the implication is that promoting foods (or presumably other products) in terms of virtue could be a mistake.

In general, labels that indicate a product’s characteristics help consumers get what they’re looking for. This is especially important with regard to characteristics that can’t be seen with the naked eye, including key characteristics of most so-called ethical products. You can’t tell by looking at an apple, for instance, whether it’s been sprayed with pesticides — unless, of course, you see the “Certified Organic” label on it. Labels of various kinds help people get what they value, and in that way help achieve the promise of a free market.

The alternative to using labels to help people find products that match their own values is to rely on government regulation and industry “best practices.” If there were widespread agreement that organic foods really were better, ethically, they there would be some justification for having government use legislation to drive non-organic foods from the market. We rely on labels and third-party certifications precisely because there isn’t sufficient consensus to warrant a general standard. But the study described above highlights one of the costs of the path we’ve chosen. By moralizing the marketplace we may, ironically enough, be encouraging immoral behaviour.

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Thanks to Andrew Potter for pointing me to the study discussed here.

POM Wonderful and Hearts vs Brains

The makers of POM Wonderful want you to use your heart, not your brain.

At least, that’s the distinct impression we get from the company’s recent battle with the US Federal Trade Commission. Last week, an administrative law judge for the FTC found that at least some of POM’s ads made “false and misleading” claims about the health benefits of the trendy, branded pomegranate juice. And the company is fighting back with a series of ads that, by quoting the judge out of context, makes it look like he actually looked favourably upon their product.

The tagline for these ads: “FTC v. POM: You be the judge”.

So POM wants you to be the judge. On the surface, that sounds like they want you to think for yourself. And who could complain about that? But context matters. So when the company is pushing back against the FTC’s assertion (and the court’s finding) that the health claims made on behalf of its juice just don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, the implied message is that yes, you the consumer should decide, but you shouldn’t use your head in doing so. After all, if you used your head and thought it through rationally, you would want to look at the evidence. And, well, the evidence doesn’t look so good for POM. But the makers of POM, it seems, would rather you look inward instead of looking at the evidence. C’mon, you’ve tasted it. It’s delicious. It must be good for you. And you, dear customer, are smart enough to know that, right? Forget what the science says.

This kind of thing is arguably part of a larger social trend. See this recent essay by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, on the way politicians, in particular over the last decade, have found new ways to play fast-and-loose with the truth. Heath and Potter point out the new popularity of the trick of using stubborn repetition as means of bullying your way past awkward facts. A lie can be convincing, in particular when it feels right, when the claim being made fits with your world view or how you want the world to be. And who wouldn’t like to believe that a tasty serving of fruit juice could prevent heart disease or cancer?

The makers of POM are certainly not unique among advertisers wanting you to use your heart, rather than your brain. But they are unusually bold about it, going on the offensive and thumbing their noses at the people whose job it is to do the fact-checking. So consumers beware: when a company wants you not to take a hard look at the facts, it’s usually time to do just that.

What Determines Consumer Value?

Is it ethically OK for a manufacturer to reduce the amount of product in a package, but to keep charging the same for it?

Here’s an interesting example. The image shown here shows three varieties of Kraft Peanut Butter — Smooth, Extra Creamy, and Whipped. Notice that all three varieties are in jars of the same size, and all three cost the same. The ingredients are also virtually the same. But notice also that the one on the right — the Whipped peanut butter — includes one special ingredient not listed on the label. That ingredient also happens to be one that is free to the manufacturer, and that takes up a lot of space in the jar. That ingredient is air.

Yes, whipping peanut butter (like whipping cream or anything other liquid or paste) adds air to it. It fluffs it up. So if you look closely you’ll see that the label on the jar of Smooth peanut butter indicates that its contents weigh 1 kilogram (1000 grams). But the label on the jar of Whipped peanut butter indicates that its contents weigh just three quarters of a kilo, or 750 grams. The result is that when you buy a jar of whipped peanut butter, you’re getting 25% less peanut butter, or a jar that is effectively 1/4 full of air.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, this is wonderful. Being able to charge just as much while reducing the amount, and cost, of ingredients by a quarter is something of a coup.

Is it fair to the consumer? Or is the consumer being ripped off, getting less peanut butter for the same price? Is the consumer getting less value?

Well, no, I don’t think the consumer is being ripped off, though I suspect some will disagree with me. The 750g jar of Whipped peanut butter contains no less value than the 1000g jar of Smooth peanut butter precisely because there’s nothing to say that 750g of the one is less valuable than 1000g of the other. They’re different products, despite having the same ingredients. The value of a thing is absolutely not determined by its ingredients; all that its ingredients (or rather their cost) determines is the lowest level at which the product could be sold without the seller suffering a loss. A thing’s ingredients no more determine its value than does the amount of labour that went into it.

Or rather, no one can say that 750g of one thing is worth less than 1000g of the other, other than the customer. What matters is how the customer values those two things. If the customer finds 750g of Whipped PB to be as useful to them as 1000g of Creamy, then charging the same price seems perfectly fair. Consumers who disagree are naturally free to object — that is, to refuse to make a purchase. But that, I’m afraid, would be akin to cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Ethical Complexity and Simplification in Food Choices

As I pointed out a few days ago, shopping ethically is hard. Right on cue, a flurry of news items followed to drive that point home.

First, a story about how — say it ain’t so! — local food isn’t always ethical food. The story points out that some agricultural workers in southern Ontario (just a short drive from where I live) report suffering from a range of ailments that they attribute to the chemicals to which they are exposed. So, yes, there’s more than a single dimension to food ethics. If (or rather when) local is actually better, that’s got to be an “other things being equal” sort of judgment. Local might be better — so long as local farm workers aren’t being abused, and so long as growing food in your local climate doesn’t require massive water and fuel subsidies, etc.

Next, a Valentine’s-themed bit on how to buy ethical chocolate. The short version: apparently you’re supposed to look for local, organic chocolate that’s certified free of child-labour, sold in a shop that dutifully recycles and composts. Of course, such chocolate isn’t necessarily cheap. And if you’re spending that much on chocolate, then you might want to think what other things you’re scrimping on as a result, and who might be affected by that scrimping.

Finally, there was a story — really just a press release — noting that chocolate bar manufacturer Mars is set to ‘help’ consumers by narrowing their choices: the company is aiming to put a 250-calorie limit on all its bars by 2013. Interesting question: is this a matter of helping particular customers, by encouraging them not to over-indulge? Or is it rather a matter of specifically social responsibility, an attempt by a food giant to respond to (or at least to limit its contribution to) the social problem of obesity? And — speaking of value choices — should food companies aim first and foremost at pleasing their customers, or serving society as a whole?

Certifying Virtue

Kenan Institute for EthicsTwo weeks ago I was at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, in part to participate in a panel discussion called “Certifying Virtue.” The panel was basically about the challenges faced by various attempts to certify particular consumer goods as having been ethically produced.

My excellent co-panelists were Greg Dees (director of Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) and Tim Büthe (Assistant Professor in Duke’s Political Science department). The panel was organized and moderated by Kenan’s Lou Brown.

My own comments focused on:

  • The large number of value-dimensions along which different consumers might want assurances about the things they buy.
  • The epistemic problems involved in figuring out how to measure the things you might want to certify (e.g., measuring “environmental impact”).
  • The moral problem that arises when 2 or more desirable characteristics conflict (e.g., “wild” vs “organic” salmon — you might want both, but no one fish can be both wild and organic.)
  • The role of brands and certification schemes as “value-alignment” mechanisms, helping consumers find producers with whom they want to do business.

The panel was videorecorded, and the resulting 90-minute video is here, on YouTube: Certifying Virtue

“Attacking a brand is like attacking a person”

Last week on my Food Ethics Blog, I posed the following question: Fast Food Beef: What Matters? At the heart of that blog posting is a lawsuit that has been filed against Taco Bell, alleging that…

…Taco Bell’s “meat mixture”, which it dubs “seasoned beef” contained less than 35 % beef. If these figures are correct, the product would fail to meet minimum requirements, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to be labeled as “beef”. The other 65% of the “meat” is made up of water, soy lecithin, maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, anti-dusting agent and modified corn starch

Today comes news that Taco Bell is fighting back. See this story from ABC News: Taco Bell Fights ‘Where’s the Beef’ Lawsuit

According to the ABC story, Taco Bell President Greg Creed says the allegations are simply false.

Well, sorting that out shouldn’t be too hard, for some unbiased food scientists.

More interesting is Creed’s moralized counter-attack:

“Attacking a brand is like attacking a person. It’s just unacceptable when there aren’t any facts to support it….”

Attacking a brand is like attacking a person? How so? Creed doesn’t expand on the question, but he make just mean that attacking a brand is “like” attacking a person in that both are wrong when they involve falsehoods — perhaps simply because lying is generally wrong.

But setting aside that line of argument, is it possible that a stronger thesis is justified, namely that a brand is something that deserves protection the way that a person deserves protection? Now, I’ve argued before that corporations need to be considered persons. And I’ve also blogged about whether corporations should have the right to sue for libel to protect their interests. But a brand isn’t the same as a corporation, so the arguments I’ve given about those don’t quite hold, here.

The most obvious way to think of the ethical justification (or requirement?) for defending a brand against attack is to think of the brand as a piece of property. If you damage the brand, you damage the interests of those who own it. Sometimes that will be justified (perhaps because the good done by damaging the brand outweighs the interests and/or rights of the brand’s owners), and sometimes it won’t. But I wonder if a still-stronger thesis is possible: is there any reasonable sense in which the brand could be thought of as an entity in its own right, with interests separable from those of its owners? Consider the world’s most valuable brand, Coca Cola. If all of the owners of stock in Coca Cola repudiated their ownership rights, and if all the employees of the company all quit en masse (eliminating another key stakeholder), what would we say about the Coca Cola brand? It would no longer, per hypothesis, have any “owners.” Would it cease to have any ethical significance at all? Would there be nothing either right or wrong that you could do “to” it? What about other brands, like the Red Cross or Greenpeace?

I don’t have good answers, but I think it’s an intriguing question, given the significance of brands in the early 21st century.

Sustainability is Unsustainable

I was tempted to call this blog entry “Sustainability is Stupid,” but I changed my mind because that’s needlessly inflammatory. And really, the problem isn’t that the concept itself is stupid, though certainly I’ve seen some stupid uses of the term. But the real problem is that it’s too broad for some purposes, too narrow for others, and just can’t bear the weight that many people want to put on it. The current focus on sustainability as summing up everything we want to know about doing the right thing in business is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

Anyway, I am tired of sustainability. And not just because, as Ad Age recently declared, it’s one of the most jargon-y words of the year. Which it is. But the problems go beyond that.

Here are just a few of the problems with sustainability:

1) Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, not everything unsustainable is bad. Oil is unsustainable, technically speaking. It will eventually get scarce, and eventually run out, for all intents and purposes. But it’s also a pretty nifty product. It works. It’s cheap. And it’s not going away soon. So producing it isn’t evil, and using it isn’t evil, even if (yes, yes) it would be better if we used less. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of oil. It would be great if cars could run on something more plentiful and less polluting, like sunshine or water or wind. But in the meantime, oil is an absolutely essential commodity. Unsustainable, but quite useful.

2) There are ways for things to be bad other than being unsustainable. Cigarettes are a stupid, bad product. They’re addictive. They kill people. But are they sustainable? You bet. The tobacco industry has been going strong for a few hundred years now. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what is. To say that the tobacco industry isn’t sustainable is like saying the dinosaur way of life wasn’t sustainable because dinosaurs only ruled the earth for, like, a mere 150 million years. So, it’s a highly sustainable industry, but a bad one.

3) There’s no such thing as “sustainable” fish or “sustainable” forests or “sustainable” widgets, if by “sustainable” you mean as opposed to the other, “totally unsustainable” kind of fish or forests or widgets. It’s not a binary concept, but it gets sold as one. A fishery (or a forest or whatever) is either more or less sustainable. So to label something “sustainable” is almost always greenwash. Feels nice, but meaningless.

4) We’re still wayyyy unclear on what the word “sustainable” means. And I’m not talking about fine academic distinctions, here. I’m talking big picture. As in, what is the topic of discussion? For some people, for example, “sustainability” is clearly an environmental concept. As in, can we sustain producing X at the current rate without running out of X or out of the raw materials we need to make X? Or can we continue producing Y like this, given the obvious and unacceptable environmental damage it does? For others, though — well, for others, “sustainability” is about something much broader: something economic, environmental, and social. This fundamental distinction reduces dramatically the chances of having a meaningful conversation about this topic.

5) Many broad uses of the term “sustainable” are based on highly questionable empirical hypotheses. For example, some people seem to think that “sustainable” isn’t just an environmental notion because, after all, how can your business be sustainable if you don’t treat your workers well? And how can you sustain your place in the market if you don’t produce a high-quality product? Etc., etc. But of course, there are lots of examples of companies treating employees and customers and communities badly, and doing so quite successfully, over time-scales that make any claim that such practices are “unsustainable” manifestly silly. (See #2 above re the tobacco industry for an example.)

6) We have very, very little what is actually sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. Sure, there are clear cases. But for plenty of cases, the correct response to a claim of sustainability is simply “How do you know?” We know a fair bit, I think, about what kinds of practices tend to be more, rather than less, environmentally sustainable. But given the complexities of ecosystems, and the complexities of production processes and business supply chains, tracing all the implications of a particular product or process in order to declare it “sustainable” is very, very challenging. I conjecture that there are far, far more claims of “sustainability” than there are instances where the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.

7) Sometimes, it’s right to do the unsustainable thing. For example, would you kill the last breeding pair of an endangered species (say, bluefin tuna, before long) to feed a starving village, if that was your only way of doing so? I would. Sure, there’s room for disagreement, but I think I could provide a pretty good argument that in such a case, the exigencies of the immediate situation would be more weighty, morally, than the long-term consequences. Now, hopefully such terrible choices are few. But the point is simply to illustrate that sustainability is not some sort of over-arching value, some kind of trump card that always wins the hand.

8 ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that people are trying to stuff full of every feel-good idea they ever hoped to apply to the world of business. So let’s get this straight: there are lots and lots of ways in which business can act rightly, or wrongly. And not all of them can be expressed in terms of the single notion of “sustainability.”

Now, look. Of course I don’t have anything against sustainability per se. I like the idea of running fisheries in a way that is more, rather than less, sustainable. I like the idea of sustainable agriculture (i.e., agriculture that does less, rather than more, long-term damage to the environment and uses up fewer, rather than more, natural resources). But let’s not pretend that sustainability is the only thing that matters, or that it’s the only word we need in our vocabulary when we want to talk about doing the right thing in business.

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