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.

13 comments so far

  1. Hi Chris- I want to know if my food is genetically modified just like I want to know if it contains MSG. I don’t want to read “autolyzed yeast extract” on the label knowing full well that this is a deliberate attempt to dupe the consumer. This is the difference between clean labeling and dirty labeling and should not be allowed.

    It’s not up to someone else or some organization to decide whether GMO is harmful or not harmful to me. Just put it on the label and let me decide whether or not I want to buy it. It’s no secret why the big food manufacturers are resisting.

    There is a growing body of consumers who don’t trust the big food manufacturers for a host of good reasons including their dirty labels. Let them clean up their acts, and then we can sit down at the table (no pun intended) and have an open and transparent conversation.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I have no problem with people wanting information. The problem is with forcing other people to provide it when there isn’t a sound public policy basis for doing so. We should only *require* labelling when there’s a good reason — such as reasonable evidence for an impact on human health. In the case of GMOs, that’s simply absent (and not for lack of looking).

  2. Chris- What do you consider “sound public policy?” I certainly don’t want Monsanto deciding what is good for me to eat and what isn’t. Do you? Read on….

    But George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, who helped draft I-522, says, “We’re essentially taking the science from the industry for safety,” because the FDA doesn’t do its own pre-market testing, instead signing off on testing done by Monsanto and other companies developing the biotech foods.

    Again Chris- at the heart of this controversy is trust. And there is no reason for educated consumers to trust that the FDA and Monsanto give two hoots about them or their long term health.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Sound public policy means not forcing people (or companies) to do things against their will without some basis. There’s plenty of science, not all from Monsanto. The scientific consensus on this is just as strong and broad as it is on, say, climate change. Sure, you can find one or two scientists who disagree, but not enough to count.

  3. So the largest pocket book once again gets to be the master counter when it comes to what consumers eat?

    But more importantly, I want you to tell me why the food companies are pushing back so hard. I think I know and I think you do too.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      No no, my argument — *mine* — has nothing to do with money. It is simply unethical to force other people to change their behaviour without good evidence that their behaviour is hurting others.

      I have little insight into why the companies are pushing back. My guesses are a) not wanting to increase their costs, and b) not wanting to deal with people’s misunderstandings of what “GM” means and doesn’t mean.

      • Chris MacDonald on

        Compare the case of Kosher foods. Some people really really want to know whether their food is Kosher, but it matters not at all to the rest of us. Should all food manufacturers be forced to put on their labels whether their foods have non-Kosher content? Would they want to do that? No. Would anyone ask “what are they hiding?” No.

  4. Interesting and tricky issue. I recently read that some US states still don’t require “country of origin” labels on produce. Are there public policy reasons in favor of requiring them to do so? Arguably. I wonder if “reasonable impact on human health” doesn’t set the bar too high. There are environmental concerns as well.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      You’re right: human health isn’t the only criterion that matters. There are some valid environmental concerns, but I think labelling is a very poor way to deal with those. A proportion of consumers avoiding GMOs for that reason is not going to be a very effective means of mitigating whatever environmental risks exist.
      Country-of-origin labels are (or should be) contentious, because they tend to promote protectionism and xenophobia. In some cases, COO might really matter, but not always.

  5. Todd Graves on
    March 13, 2013
    Week 8 Blog
    Mr. Macdonald, thank you for your blog regarding the importance of product labels and the ethical and practical responsibility to the manufacturer. I am current a communication student at Drury University and we have learned the importance of the ethical transference of truthful information to the consumer. This is a challenge in our society not just when it comes to food labels but all forms of communication from corporate business landscape to governmental agencies. Companies are too concerned with selling product versus getting the right information to the consumer especially if that information is in any way negative.
    Public Relations and how information gets delivered has become seriously challenged when it comes to ensuring that the truth is being delivered to people in an ethical and moral way. I know I might be going a bit overboard as the post is about food labels but it affects many different areas of life from food labels to the news we receive from different media outlets. The text we are using is, “Ethics in Human Communication”, and the author discusses moral deafness, ‘encompasses not being willing to hear bad news, not seeking out bad news that might be crucial; not comprehending messages because of unresolved misunderstanding or our clinging to stereotypes or inappropriate presumptions; and unwillingness to seriously consider the accounts of others” (Johnannesen, Valde, Whedbee, pg. 166).
    Ethical communication in any area where information is being relayed to others need to be done with the receivers best interest in heart and that includes information that is and should be on food labels. Thanks again for your post I appreciate it.
    Todd Graves
    Drury University

    Works Cited:

    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Human Communications (Sixth ed., pp. 165-166). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

  6. Meghan McKay on

    Food Labels create many concerns for consumers because of the misleading information that they display. The facts are concealed. Concealing facts are those that are deceitfully advertised where claims made aren’t directly false, but pertinent information is intentionally left out. We are all aware that food labels are required to have certain nutritional information on them to remain complaint. However, if you are not educated on nutritional information you will most definitely overlook important information, such as the serving size. Many times you see what looks to be a healthy product, but if you overlook the serving size you could be consume much more calories than you had expected. Ultimately, labels are important to ensure you are buying things that meet your need, but we must be educated to make sure we are purchasing the correct items with the necessary information.

  7. Tarah Ceccarelli on

    For so many years I believe people followed the thought process of what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Nowadays people are becoming more educated in their health practices, whether it is because of a diagnosis of an acute or chronic disease or just have a greater appreciation for the importance of good health behaviors. More people are interested in what they are putting into their own and their family’s bodies. GMOs should be listed on labels to keep consumers informed. Even though GM crops have weighty advantages, there have been no scientific studies that prove negative long term effects on humans. These GMO ingredients have only been around for roughly 20 years, so who knows what real risks they pose. The perfect consumer is informed and rational in their decision making process. Ethically, it is wrong for companies to withhold product information from their consumers because they are not able to make sound judgment calls on their grocery choices.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      We have a mountain of evidence suggesting that there’s no reason to worry about GMOs as a class of foods. (Compare: we don’t have conclusive tests showing that digital watches don’t cause cancer. Should there be a radiation warning on digital watches anyway?)

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