This past weekend, TEDx Manhattan hosted a day-long symposium on our food system. If you’ve been following my twitter feed, you’ll know that I attended a viewing party hosted by Boston University’s Gastronomy program. The event has given me many things to think about, and much to share with you here on the blog. Today I want to start with something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: food labeling.
Urvashi Rangan is a senior scientist and director of Consumer Reports’ GreenerChoices.org. Her talk focused on why labels mean close to nothing in the United States, and here are some of the main points that I took away:
To preface, I consider myself an excessive label reader. I probably spend twice as long in the grocery store as the average person because I’m not only trying to figure out what to buy but also analyzing labels and trying to figure out the marketing tactics behind them. I am fascinated by labels. And I am constantly confounded by them.
Rangan stated that research shows consumers will pay more for better (i.e. clearer) labeling, but that they are also easily and constantly mislead by the labeling that exists. Case in point: a consumer’s goal may be to purchase the best quality food that won’t make them sick. Due to the way labels are promoted, people confuse “natural” and “organic” all the time, and many will even value the term “natural” over “organic.”
Here’s the clincher: the label “natural” has no industry guidelines. Any company can use the term with whatever intended definition they want. However, the label “organic” has been defined by the USDA in 600 pages. So why are we still even paying attention to “natural?” Because marketing companies have created a value in the term, and we’ve fallen for it because we (understandably) don’t have the resources available to us to know not to.
Rangan also told an example of Creekstone Beef requesting the use of clarifying labeling that was denied by the USDA. A few years ago, Japan refused to import US beef because it was not being tested for Mad Cow disease. Creekstone wanted to test its beef and label it tested in order to continue export to Japan. The USDA refused, saying the test Creekstone wanted to use was not sufficient to determine the presence of the disease. Guess what? It is the exact same test the USDA uses to determine the presence of Mad Cow Disease in the US market.
The takeaway here is that we need more clarification, and laws, on labeling our foods. It should be clear to me what the difference is between a carton of eggs that says “free range” and one that says “cage-free.” Furthermore, if a carton shows a picture of a hen in a pasture, this should be an accurate visual description of the conditions in which these eggs were laid.
The question I pose today is: aside from paying a premium for foods labeled “organic” (a term which Rangan says is the most reliable label we have, but which still has its own problems and limitations), what can we consumers do to ensure that we are not being ripped off by labels?