Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Food Labels - Using Alternative Sources to Better Inform

* We linked this post on the Hearth and Soul Hop at A Moderate Life and Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFGLINS *

Some of you may have already heard that the FDA has declined to require warning labels on foods that contain artificial food coloring even though there may be evidence that these chemical dyes may lead to health conditions, especially in children.  Now, I admit I haven't done my research on food dyes, but my point with this post is not to debate whether food coloring is bad or not.  Rather, I want to discuss what we do about any type of potentially harmful substance in our food supply.  Lobbying our government to impose regulations, require warning labels, and to offer stamps of approval, is common method that seems natural to turn to.  However, this approach seems to come with great frustration and very little effectiveness in the long run. Fortunately, I believe some alternatives to government labels are starting to draw some attraction. 

I want something to be done just as much as anyone to better inform parents of the potentially harmful substances in our industrial food supply.  And if it became law tomorrow that all foods with chemically-based food coloring were required to have a warning label, it would no doubt inform "some" parents and cause a change in their buying habits.  However, I believe it would only be a limited and short term fix since government labeling often seems to be misinformed in the first place or eventually taken advantage of by the industrial food complex. 

Sadly, government labels offer very little assurance in the quality of the product you are buying.  I'm sure most of us that have been active in the real food community for a while now know the atrocities of organic and cage free labeled eggs.  We know that not all products with the USDA organic label can be treated equally.  I feel that the reason is that government regulation is a "check-box" approach, and the criteria for receiving a check in the check-box is highly influenced by extensive lobbying.  And anything that isn't manipulated by lobbying is then thwarted due to oversights and lack of understanding when the regulations were created by non-expert politicians.  For example, if a chicken "technically" has access to the outside, which may be a slab of cement with no grass and bugs, for a limited part of the day, it gets the cage free check mark.  This is regardless of whether the chicken actually chooses to wander outside the dark hen house or not.  Another reason to believe government will only have short term influence is that it's only a matter of time until the highly paid chemists of the food industry find a substitute chemical (most likely corn based) that will replace the regulated ingredient -- and the new substitute may even be worse for us.  Think hydrogenated oils (margarine) when the government proclaimed animal fat is bad for us.   

Another reason that I don't like government labels is because we simply cannot ask the public to inform and educate themselves based on government labels and recommendations for all things.  So we want them to mind GMO or food dye warning labels, but at the same time we are asking them to ignore the USDA food pyramid, certain USDA organic labels, and other labels we feel are very misleading.  For every label that we applaud, we're sure to find a label that we feel to be an outrage.  What do you think about the FDA label on dairy products that advertise that their milk contains no growth hormones?  This label is required to state that according to the FDA there is no difference between rBST and non-rBST dairy!   In my state of New Mexico, if you receive state certification to sell raw milk you have to slap on a label that reads consuming this product may result in death!  Basically, what it comes down to is that the government will never be able to make everyone happy with the way it regulates the labeling of our food so why even attempt to use it as a catch-all and universal food authority? 

My preferred solution to this problem would be to stop lobbying for our tax dollars to be spent on failing one-size-fits-all labeling imposed by the USDA, FDA, and whatever other bureaucratic systems may come along in the future.  There will always be voters with very different views on diet perpetually competing to exercise power through the use of government.  Government systems will constantly be changing as public opinion sways and administrations come and go.  It makes no sense to rely on such a volatile system to be in charge of being a watchdog over our food, and the unintended consequence is that the food producers are constantly forced to spend money and time keeping up with the rules.

I'm advocating to put our money and energy into supporting third-party and independent watchdog or certification groups.  Many of these already exist today because of a lack of action (or because of inappropriate action) by government. The American Humane Association and the Non-GMO Project are two examples.  With a variety of different certifications, we'd be free to pick and choose whose standards we agree with most. 

Will non-profit or for-profit third-party groups be subject to corruption such as taking bribes to certify a product?  Probably so, but this is no different with the government.  Recall BP and the bribes the government inspectors gladly accepted.  The problem with government corruption in this case is that we have no choice but to accept their word, and for some reason we get upset for only a short time, but then turn around and quickly put our trust back in their ability to inform us.  It's Stockholm syndrome or something-- I don't know.  However, if corruption or any other practice we may not like is identified in a private certifier we have the ability to quickly let them know what we think by freely voting with our money.  Other food companies could be free to choose a different certifier with a better reputation.  Upset activists could be free to start their own certification organization.  The possibilities are great. There is no one-size-fits-all label for food so the more labels of certification there are, the better.

In summary, a government check-box approach to food regulation almost always leads to corners being cut and a misinformed public.  The wealth of power available in government regulation attracts activists of all sorts, resulting in an inefficient and wasteful battle between people trying to steer that power.  It is contradictory if we advocate trust in government labels and regulation for one thing, but complain about the mis-truths in others.  This sends a mixed message that will forever confuse the public.  The roller coaster ride of the "expert" recommended diets and health advice is evidence of this.  We should be turning to third-party inspectors and certifiers to tell us what we want to know about our food.  They have greater incentive to keep their consumer base happy and if they choose corrupt practices it's easy for us to withdraw our support, thus making room for better organizations to fill the gap. 

I'm excited to see some of the healthy food labeling from alternative groups gaining some traction.  What are some of the ones you know about and support?


  1. It's interesting that you shared this on Real Food. I was just reading the latest issue of Whole Living last night when I find a brief note on the different labeling systems for products, not food. However, it got me thinking about whether or not I could trust the labels as a consumer. I'm frustrated that I need to check out the organizations providing the seal of approval to verify that I can trust THEM.

    Whole Living mentioned a new food labeling system, harvestmark.com, that is supposed to track where the food came from. They showed a picture of a vegetable wrapped in plastic with the harvest mark on the wrapper. Something else to check out!

  2. @Barb - Thanks for the link to harvestmark.com. I'll be sure to check this out.

    I agree with you that it can be quite frustrating not knowing whom we can trust in the market place as consumers. However, I do feel that if we're going to be a consumer of ANY product or service it is our job to research the history and reputation of those we wish to buy from. In fact, I feel like this process can be made easier with certifications. Rather than trying to research every food maker and food product I can choose to thoroughly research an organization that certifies the food. If I feel like I can trust their process of certification then my shopping becomes a lot easier as I look for foods with their seal. I should then always remain up to speed on the organization whose certifications I'm trusting.

    The point I was trying to make in this article is that I don't feel these frustrations and trust issues are any better with government certifications and other labels. It's subject to the same kind of corruption and misrepresentations. It then becomes so tiring, and not to mention community dividing, to try and "fix" what the government is doing wrong. With private organizations we may give them some time to try and correct any bad practices. But if they take too long, we have the freedom to then take our business elsewhere.

  3. Wow there is tons to think about in this post. I need to chew on it some! Thanks for sharing this with the Hearth and Soul Hop!

  4. This is a very interesting post, and I agree with Christy, it gives us a lot to think about. We have similar problems in the UK and labelling is very confusing here too. It has gotten to the stage that unless meat is labelled organic you have no guarantees of anything. But then we had a scandal where ducks were being mistreated on a supposedly organic farm... Luckily we are getting close to a total Europe wide ban on eggs from battery hens, and we have managed to defeat a couple of planning applications for industrial farms - one for dairy cows and one for pigs - but it is all slowly, slowly. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking post with the Hearth and Soul blog hop.