Monday, March 1, 2010

Front-of-Package Labeling: Snake Oil for the 21st Century

Loads of coverage in the last few days of Marion Nestle and David Ludwig's editorial calling for an end to front-of-package labeling in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The issue here is all those nutrient and health claims that have become commonplace in our supermarkets. Such claims, like the ludicrous one in the photo above that somehow Cocoa Krispies will support your child's immunity, are regulated by the FDA (and to an extent the FCC, when you're dealing with other forms of advertising), but over the last century or so the food processing industry has been immensely successful at weakening this regulatory authority through the courts and through legislation. Their reason for wanting the unregulated right to make such claims is as simple as sales - the endorsement of the American Heart Association or an extravagent health claim can give a much-prized sales bump to just about any product.

Why are nutritionists, doctors and consumer advocates so opposed to front-of-package labeling? The industry would have you believe that none of these groups have your best interests at heart, that these people want to suspend your freedom of choice, and that they want to disregard the freedom of expression (in this case, corporate speech). Here's the thing: freedom of choice and freedom of speech are vitally important things that I love very dearly, and I'm convinced that on both charges the industry is flat out wrong.

Freedom of Choice
I have said many times that when we say "freedom of choice" we actually mean "freedom of informed choice." After all, what good is having a choice if you are forced to make that choice on insufficient or even misleading information. When the cereal company tells people that Cocoa Krispies will improve children's immunity, people use that information to make choices about what to feed their children. Improves immunity how? Compared with what? Compared with a honey-bun? Maybe, though I wouldn't put any money on it if someone actually did a clinical study. Compared with a bowl of oatmeal and some fresh fruit? No chance in hell.

Freedom of Speech
Pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to tell us that a medicine will cure a disease unless it has first done sufficient testing to prove to FDA regulators that the medicine is BOTH effective and safe. Is this a restriction on free speech? Yes. Do we get upset about it? No. Because when it comes to putting something in our body, we as a society very reasonably expect answers to basic questions like "what is this?" and "will it hurt me?" I fail to see how food is any different, particularly now that food is basically being advertised as medicine. I don't think anybody is saying that we should restrict TRUTHFUL claims about food. The problem is - and this is why Nestle goes so far as to suggest eliminating all claims - that very few claims are verifiably true, and it is in the best interest of the companies (who ultimately measure success in profits) to stretch these claims as far as possible in the interest of sales.

So I'm with Nestle on this one. In the entire history of front-of-label packaging, consumers have become not one bit more informed as a result, though they have certainly become fatter and more vulnerable to chronic disease. Enough's enough.

Responses to the the editorial from: The LA Times, Forbes, and Food Navigator.

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