Label Talk–A Blog Series About Misleading Food Labels: Part I

Part I

This post is the first installment in a blog series focused on the use (and misuse) of food labels, as well as how government agencies are trying to clarify the meaning of food labels through ongoing efforts (For example, “sell by” or “use by” dates recently caught the attention of the media). In the first installment, communications specialist Kimberly Nelson speaks about food labels through her own personal and professional experiences. 

Several years ago, I expanded my food knowledge by trying different types of produce from the grocery store, including kale. At the time, it was a rising superfood superstar. I thought I knew what I was looking for (surprise, I didn’t). So, I picked up a bunch of leafy greens that I thought was kale (surprise, it wasn’t) and went home to make a salad. 

At this point, you can probably guess that I chose wrong and had a terrible flavor experience–which is totally what happened. If only I read the label! (I totally did, by the way, after I bought it.)

Labels are meant to help you, and they do–for the most part.

Labels Are Talking to You
Food labels are a form of communication. They let consumers know what they are buying, where the product came from, what is “good” or “bad” about the product, what is in the product, etc.

Labels are trying to tell you a lot.

Artem Beliaikin/Pexels

And it’s not like marketers can throw around information willy-nilly…sort of. There are regulations and guidelines they have to follow from the FDA and the USDA, depending on the type of food being marketed (meat, poultry, and eggs fall under the USDA regulations and basically all other foods fall under the FDA). Then there are other agencies like the Federal Trade Commission that prohibits using any misleading information about a product on its packaging.

But misleading labels happen, and the result can be harmful to the advancement of agricultural technology and science.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in misusing labels and most marketers–that I’ve worked with–don’t either. 

My Experience with Food Package Advertising
Professionally, I worked with the art department at an advertising agency to ensure that the content on our client’s food labels–net weights, food descriptions, nutrition facts, ingredients, health and nutrition claims, process labels, and more–complied with regulations from the agencies mentioned earlier. It’s a lot of work that gets turned out as fast as possible (because it takes a really long time to hit the shelf). 

This image is a pretty good representation of
my office at the advertising agency. Min An/Pexels

Seriously, my cubicle walls were covered (read: covered) in sticky notes, even though I had a digital and printed out version of the regulations and guidelines. We took our labeling seriously. If a claim seemed iffy, even though it was provided by a product’s producer/vendor, we scrutinized it through the eyes of the FDA/USDA/FTC until we were sure whether it should appear on the package.

I cannot vouch for every marketing firm on their labeling practices, but I can tell you that I worked with cautious, knowledgeable, and detail-oriented team members whose objective was to provide catchy packaging and accurate, FDA/USDA/FTC-compliant labeling. 

Of course, my experience doesn’t mean misuse or misunderstandings are absent. Even the best intentions can lead to label misinformation or misinterpretation by the consumer.

So, where is it going wrong? Why are labels misleading to consumers and what harm can they cause? Labels are meant to help consumers make a choice about their food preferences, so what is being done to help them? 

Join me next week for part II of this food labeling series. 

By Kimberly Nelson
Pictures by
Disclaimer: This blog series does not reflect the views of CAST. The views presented are the author’s. 

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