Label Talk–Part 2: The Pros and Cons of Voluntary Labeling

This post is the second 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). You can read the first post in the series here. 

Let’s play two truths and a lie. Guess which of the following statements is the lie:

  1. Consumers make decisions about what food to buy based on food labels.
  2. The food labels shown on packaging are often based on consumers’ desires to know more about their food.
  3. Food labels such as nutrition facts and hormone-free milk must be displayed on food packages.

How’d you do? Did you figure out the lie? Was it easy? Let’s briefly walk through them so you can either feel secure about your food packaging knowledge, or have a fun fact to pull out in the next food-labeling-themed trivia night.

The first statement is correct and, technically, so is statement two (there are other factors that determine the use of food labels, but many updates are driven by a collection of consumer feedback to the FDA). That means the third statement is false–to a point. 

Many of the food labels we see aren’t mandatory on packages; the nutrition label, the name of the product, and the weight of the package’s contents–these are definitely mandatory labels on packaging. But many labels that tout how the product was processed or maintained don’t need to appear (example: “rbST-free milk”  is not mandatory on dairy products, but its use comes with a caveat.) 

The agencies in charge of food labeling and marketing have regulations in place via laws such as the Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act, but they mostly supply guidelines for the food industry to use. The guidelines promote clear and accurate labeling practices, but they leave a lot of wiggle room for marketers to position their product as the best available on the shelf.

Before we start walking toward the event horizon with the nuances for different types of claims, I’m going to choose one type of label to focus on to show: process labels. Why? Because their misuses are a good example of labeling gone wrong.

Examples of frequently used process labels from our
 paper, Process Labeling of Food: Consumer Behavior,
the Agricultural Sector, and Policy Recommendations

What is a process label? A process label tells consumers how their food was made. Specifically, what acts (read: processes) were used to transform the food into its final product that is packaged in the store. 

Why do consumers want to know about where their food comes from? Food comes from a lot of places nowadays, which leaves consumers blind to the actual production process. Sure, some places open up their production facilities, but that doesn’t mean consumers can observe the entire process, let alone afford to travel to every place that makes their favorite foods. 

Process labels are driven by consumers’ desires to know how their food was made and if that production process aligns with their values. It creates transparency when literal transparency can’t happen. 

What’s the harm in process labels?
Just like anything in life, there are pros and cons to consumer labels.

For the consumer, process labels are perceived as a good thing. They let consumers feel like they have more control over deciding what foods they choose to eat. Consumers also connect to brands based on perceived values from package labeling, which can build trust. On the other hand, labels allow producers and marketers to communicate with their target audiences. And process labels create a perceived value to the product which allows them to stand out from the competition. 

But everything comes with implications:

So what can federal and state governments do to fix these issues in a way that benefits consumers, agriculturalists, and brands? We’ll talk about that more next week. 

Want to Learn More About Process Labels?
Download our free paper, Process Labeling of Food: Consumer Behavior, the Agricultural Sector, and Policy Recommendations.

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

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