Negative impact from positive claims

by Morton Sosland
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Few food industries ought to be more concerned than grain-based foods when it contemplates developments in food labeling in the United States and in Great Britain. After all, just counting bakery products and breakfast cereals, no other food sector occupies as much label-related space at retail as does this vast array of packages. To a degree, the American industry ought to be grateful that it is largely free of strict requirements imposed in other countries as to what may be and is required to be said on food labels. Yet, it is that freedom that exposes the industry to efforts to gain an advantage for a single or a few companies in ways that damage not just the remainder of the industry but consumers’ attitudes about products.

In America, much of the concern about food labeling has to do with what is allowed rather than what is required. That doesn’t mean efforts have not been made to change what a food label must show. Requiring food containing ingredients that are bioengineered to be labeled came to a public vote in California last November, where it lost by 51.4 per cent opposed to 48.6 per cent in favor. In the wake of that vote, members of California’s congressional delegation are in the forefront pushing for federal law requiring bioengineered labeling. They have been rebuffed in actions that have been part of the catastrophic uncertainty about farm legislation.

As efforts to force bioengineered-related changes thankfully fail, the Department of Agriculture, which controls labeling of meat, poultry and eggs as well as dairy foods, has shockingly approved labels for meat from animals that are fed no bioengineered ingredients. It has approved labels promoted by Non-G.M.O. Project, a non-profit providing third-party verification of this claim. The project was founded by a group of independent organic food retailers in California whose efforts led to the establishment of a company offering only bioengineered-free meat.

Of course, the success of such an enterprise depends on its ability to raise alarm among consumers that meat without the non-bioengineered guarantee is a threat to health. The same strategy prevails among food companies claiming their products do not include high-fructose corn syrup, which is taking a swipe at products that do. Allowing such label claims flies in the face of the U.S.D.A., as well as top administration executives recently declaring that bioengineering is a welcome and highly important contribution to boosting the global food supply, and that it poses no threat to the health of people eating such products. It isn’t all that different from allowing meat to be labeled by the Certified Humane Program, which was created “to improve the lives of farm animals,” compared with methods that the Agriculture Department itself participated in devising.

Considering the likely negative effects of such labeling, the question arises whether it would be better for the United States to adopt a program like the one finally just approved by the U.K. Department of Health. Offered as a voluntary choice, but accepted by all the major grocery companies for their own label products and by several major branded food companies, the new label system prescribes what must be said about nutritional content on the front of food packages. It includes the controversial red, yellow and green labeling for calorie, sugars, salt, fat and unsaturated fat content per 100 grams of product. Most bread products will enjoy green labeling, it appears, but even then the industry has many questions.

U.K. public health officials said they were encouraged to adopt uniform labeling by how people are “bewildered” by different nutrition facts. “People will now find it easier to make healthier choices about the food they eat,” the public health minister said. That’s all well and good, but such an approach leaves concerns about dealing with highly negative effects from promotions and claims that are couched in positive terms, but have the opposite result.

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