Consumers are inundated with information on food labels: Certified organic, rbST free, 100% natural – and not all of them know exactly what those labels mean.
In a new Council for Agricultural Science and Technology issue paper, analysts review what is known regarding consumer reactions to process labels on foods; identify the legal framework for process labeling; and provide policy recommendations that highlight the pros and cons of labels.
"Process labels can effectively bridge the informational gap between producers and consumers," CAST analysts say, because they increase consumer choices, open new markets, and help remove harmful ingredients from foods. Consumers feel more connected and more able to make informed decisions, the paper says.
But despite the benefits, problems arise when process labels are subject to consumer interpretation. They might ask themselves: "Are products really 'healthier, safer, and more environmentally friendly'?"
Opinion can override credible science, and the consequences might include increased food prices and the stunting of technological advances in agriculture, the paper says.
While some people call for a ban on process labels, CAST analysts explain why that would be a bad idea. Labels can be good for consumers and producers alike, but the food industry and government officials should keep key points in mind:
• Governments should not impose bans on process labels
• Mandatory labeling should occur only when science-based facts prove that the product is harmful
• Voluntary process labels should be encouraged if they are true and scientifically verifiable
• Next-generation process labels should avoid the "all or nothing syndrome" while incorporating new technology and imaginative ways to clearly inform consumers.
The adage "you are what you eat" has become "you are what you think you eat," as consumers struggle to interpret food labels. CAST authors explain that next-generation labels should be clear, science based, and consumer friendly.
Review the full paper, "Process labeling of food: Consumer behavior, the agricultural sector and policy recommendations" on the CAST website.
Are you interested in the GMO discussion? Penton Farm Progress Special Projects Editor Holly Spangler explores GE foods, GMO labeling and the genetically modified food debate in an exclusive series. Follow the links below for more.