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This House would introduce labels on food to encourage people to eat better
This House would introduce labels on food to encourage people to eat better
We all want and should eat better. And each of us has different definitions and priorities when it comes to “good food”.
For some good equals healthy, low in fat and sugar. Not at all a bad idea in a world with more than 1 billion overweight and 300 million obese individuals where energy-dense, fat and sugar laden food takes most of the blame.
For others the goal is to eat sustainably and for many that means eating food that was produced locally. Kaiser Permamente discovered that it can reduce its carbon footprint by more than 17 percent by using local produce in their menus.
This could also mean eating food that is ‘fair trade’ that makes sure that a decent amount of the money spent by the consumer goes to the farmer who produces the food.
Lastly, and perhaps most controversially, some will refuse to eat genetically modified food, for fears they’re both unhealthy and unsustainable.
Underlying all those very diverse goals is labeling – specifically labeling food products with their fat and sugar content, origin, way of production and possibly GMO content. But is this really a way to give the consumer the information she needs to reach her goals of health, sustainability and advocacy or will labeling foods fall short of its promise, leaving tax payers and companies to pay for the failed experiment?
Because this is such a broad topic, we’ll be looking at the combined issues of different labeling schemes, focusing on the GDA-system and the traffic light system, which have been introduced in the UK and elsewhere in the EU and labeling foods containing GMOs, allowed on a voluntary basis in the US. Thus the government in today’s debate stands for all sorts of food labeling: all contents, GDA and traffic lights, origin and GMO content.
 WHO, Obesity and overweight, published in 2003, http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/media/en/gsfs_obesity.pdf, accessed 9/14/2011
 Soares, C., Sustainable Eating--The Low-Carbon Diet, published 3/17/2009, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=sustainable-eating-the-low-carbon-diet, 9/14/2011
 Poulter, S., GM foods 'not the answer' to world's food shortage crisis, report says, published 4/16/2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-559965/GM-foods-answer-worlds-food-shortage-crisis-report-says.html, accessed 9/14/2011
 FDF, GDAs in Europe, published 10/1/2011, http://www.gdalabel.org.uk/gda/background_european.aspx, accessed 9/15/2011
 Suppan, S., The GMO labeling fight at the Codex Alimentarius Commission: How big a victory for consumers?, published 7/13/2011, http://www.iatp.org/blog/201107/the-gmo-labeling-fight-at-the-codex-alimentarius-commission-how-big-a-victory-for-consum, accessed 9/15/2011
|Points For||Points Against|
|Food labeling is an important form of consumer protection||Food labeling does not change consumer behavior|
|Food labeling helps people make better choices regarding their food||Food labeling allows companies to deceive consumers|
|Food labeling encourages food companies to provide food more in tune with consumer values||Food labeling introduces unfair prejudice against certain products|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Food labeling is an important form of consumer protection
It is a basic right for us as consumers to know what it is we eat.
Today more and more foods that we buy are processed, they include many harmful additives, causing conditions such as hyperactivity in children, or are advertised as health food, but are in reality loaded with sugar or salt.
It is therefore necessary for consumers to be made aware of all their food contains in order to make safe and healthy choices for themselves and their families.
 Parvez, S., Processed food exports rise 41pc, published 3/26/2009, http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=81403, accessed 9/15/2011
 Rosenthal, E., Some Food Additives Raise Hyperactivity, Study Finds, published 9/6/2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/06/health/research/06hyper.html, accessed 9/15/2011
 Smellie, A., That 'healthy' bowl of granola has more sugar than coke... and more fat than fries: Busting the diet food myths, published 5/21/2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1389515/That-healthy-bowl-granola-sugar-coke--fat-fries-Busting-diet-food-myths.html, accessed 9/15/2011
Food labeling rarely helps consumers find out what exactly it is they are eating, because of the convoluted names companies use to describe ingredients.
Forcing companies to label food does not mean they will actually make those labels easy to understand and useful. Even when it comes to things as important as common allergens in food, it is very difficult to understand whether it is included or not.
 Webster Family Wellness Center, Confusing terms make food labels difficult to understand, published 5/7/2011, http://thewellzone.org/2011/05/confusing-terms-make-food-labels-difficult-to-understand/, accessed 9/17/2011
Food labeling helps people make better choices regarding their food
Given that there is a global trend of increasing numbers of overweight and obese people, food that is fattening and therefore contributes to this problem needs to be clearly labeled so people can avoid them.
Research shows that having this nutritional information helps people make better choices. Up to 30% of consumers reconsider buying a food item after reading the food label and finding out what’s inside.
Another study points out that there were “significant differences in mean nutrient intake of total calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, dietary fiber, and sugars” when people could go ahead and use the information about the food they were considering buying.
It is therefore clear that making more information about food available, especially in the form of readily available food labels, helps people make choices that will help the fight against obesity.
 Elseth, M., Obesity numbers rise in 28 states, published 6/29/2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jun/29/obesity-rates-rose-28-states/, accessed 9/15/2011
 Arsenault, J. E., Can Nutrition Labeling Affect Obesity?, published in 2010, http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.php?article=140, accessed 9/15/2011
 diabetesincontrol.com, Nutritional Labeling and Point-of-Purchase Signs Work to Make Better Choices, published 8/10/2010, http://www.diabetesincontrol.com/articles/53-diabetes-news/9680-nutritional-labeling-and-point-of-purchase-signs-work-to-make-better-choices, accessed 9/15/2011
People will only make better choices regarding their food only if people actually read the labels.
A survey of Irish consumers found that reading labels is rare. In fact, 61% of men and 40% of women never read the labels on food before they make the purchase.
In addition, when labels are actually read, they seem to work only in more affluent parts of the society and so this is only going to have any effect in tackling obesity in one segment of society.
 Hills, S., Half of all consumers ignore food labels, published 2/24/2009, http://www.foodnavigator.com/Financial-Industry/Half-of-all-consumers-ignore-food-labels, accessed 9/17/2011
Food labeling encourages food companies to provide food more in tune with consumer values
Innovation is inevitable. That holds true for food industry as much as any other industry – and the food companies want to share their progress with the consumer to benefit from it. With the impact food labeling has on consumer choices, companies turned the issue on its head, producing food that is more in tune with what the people want and using labels to tell us about it.
An example is PepsiCo’s “Smart Spot” program that is intended to help consumers identify healthier products – products the company developed as a consequence of consumer pressure for healthier drinks that contain less sugar. What is more, the strategy proved very profitable for the company, with the smart spot products sales increasing 13 percent or three times as fast as the rest of the business.
We see that companies were able to adapt to the pressure labeling created with excellent products, in tune with consumer values, and make a profit as well.
 Warner, M., Under Pressure, Food Producers Shift to Healthier Products, published 12/16/2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/business/16food.html, accessed 9/15/2011
For every company that actually makes an effort to create a program of healthy products, there ten that use labels to promote a “functional food” gimmick.
More and more products are being labeled with the “health food” and “functional food” labels. One strong example of that is the “contains added vitamins and minerals” label in the U.S., with foods being fortified with vitamins – so seemingly improved for the better. Yet the U.S. population’s vitamin deficiencies are at an all time low. An epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania also notes that these fortifications and the labels that come with them are mostly a tactic used to distract consumers from actual nutritional problems – those of excess.
 Narayan, A., Figuring Out Food Labels, published 5/2/2010, http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1986269_1986240_1986272,00.html, accessed 9/17/2011
Food labeling does not change consumer behavior
Food labels may include useful dietary information, but they will not significantly impact actual consumption for two reasons.
The first is that people don’t really read or use the labels. A study at WSU shows that only 41% of men actually read the labels. The women did better, but still only 59% of them actually read the labels – which does not mean they actually understood or heeded the advice on them.
The second reason concerns the connection between actually getting the information and acting on it. Research on posting calories on restaurant menus shows that customers actually ordered slightly more calories compared to before the information was made available.
Thus we see that food labels are not enough to nudge customers towards better and healthier food choices.
 Warman, S., Reading food labels can help battle obesity, published 9/16/2010, http://www.weightworld.co.uk/health-and-diet-news/reading-food-labels-can-help-battle-obesity-1917.html, accessed 9/15/2011
 Hartocollis, A., Calorie Postings Don’t Change Habits, Study Finds, published 10/6/2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/nyregion/06calories.html, accessed 9/15/2011
There are two things we need to respond with in this case. One regarding the current state of labels and the other the strategy of fighting obesity.
It is a fact that the current label designs leave something to be desired. If currently only a certain (but not at all negligible) percentage go ahead and actually read the labels that does not mean that labels are inherently ineffective. It might just as well, if not more likely, mean that the current design of labels is simply not attractive and useful enough for people to pay attention to. Therefore efforts are being made to revamp the food label to improve its effectiveness.
As to the second, food labels are but a weapon in our arsenal against fighting obesity. It might be that on their own they will not defeat the epidemic, but they certainly play a key part of the overall strategy.
 Associated Press, New food nutrition labels from FDA coming, published 9/3/2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/09/03/national/main20101420.shtml, accessed 9/17/2011
 Benassi, M., The launch of a dynamic process, published in May 2006, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_consumer/consumervoice/cvsp_52006_en.pdf, accessed 9/17/2011
Food labeling allows companies to deceive consumers
What we have seen with introducing visually impressive food labels is that companies started adopting similar visual elements to promote their products in a dishonest way.
Let’s take for instance Dannon’s Activia, which was marketed as health food (with very convincing packaging that went with that strategy). The labels claimed that the product helped improve digestion by hastening it. Yet the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) found this claim to be false.
On a similar note, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies featured packaging purporting that the product boosted immunity. Again, the regulator found this untrue.
We see that the companies, so in essence telling consumers to trust information on the packaging, can easily misuse labeling.
 Singer, N., Foods With Benefits, or So They Say, published 5/14/2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/business/15food.html, accessed 9/15/2011
These examples do not really demonstrate that food labels do not work or are deceptive but rather that consumers should be educated better about how to actually read and recognize them – something the consumers themselves want, a fact known now for decades.
On the other hand, stricter regulations on packaging advertising are being called for as well, attacking the problem from another perspective.
We contend that better educated consumers on the one and better regulations on the other will uproot this problem at hand. In addition, this just goes to show that food labels are anything but ineffective – they just need to be known and regulated better.
 Hackleman, E. C., Food label information: what consumers say they want and what they need, published in 1981, http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/display.asp?id=5840, accessed 9/17/2011
 Neuman W., U.S. Seeks New Limits on Food Ads for Children, published 4/28/2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/29/business/29label.html?_r=1, accessed 9/17/2011
Food labeling introduces unfair prejudice against certain products
Requiring companies to label their products a certain way might unfairly influence the sales of this product. Let us observe this point on the example of GMOs in food.
For instance, a study investigated the influence of labeling a cornflakes product with different variations on the theme of containing GMOs. The packaging might say that the product contained "USDA approved genetically modified corn" or "may contain genetically modified corn", basically stating the same thing. Yet the first product was evaluated much more favorably than the second, with a 6% price perception difference.
Considering that GMOs are considered safe by the health authorities, it would be unfair to prejudice against these products by specifically targeting them, when they pose no risk to health.
 WHO, 20 questions on genetically modified foods, published 12/10/2010, http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/, accessed 9/15/2011
Although we agree that it is the role of government to ensure a fair marketplace, we do not agree that the case described should be included in this definition.
What we see is simply consumers reacting in accordance to their values – and currently the public opinion is quite opposed to the introduction of GMOs into their diets (71% in EU). So it is only natural that products that include them are valued less.
It also goes to show that these products should be labeled, so that consumers can make informed decisions in accordance to what they believe – something much more important in this case than a company’s profits.
 Bonny, S., Why are most Europeans opposed to GMOs? Factors explaining rejection in France and Europe, published 4/15/2008, http://ejbiotechnology.info/content/vol6/issue1/full/4/index.html, accessed 9/17/2011
Arsenault, J. E., Can Nutrition Labeling Affect Obesity?, 2010, http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.php?article=140
Associated Press, New food nutrition labels from FDA coming, 3 September 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/09/03/national/main20101420.shtml
BBC News, Label wars: GDA vs traffic lights, 4 January 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6231137.stm
Benassi, M., The launch of a dynamic process, May 2006, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/health_consumer/consumervoice/cvsp_52006_en.pdf
Bonny, S., Why are most Europeans opposed to GMOs? Factors explaining rejection in France and Europe, 15 April 2008, http://ejbiotechnology.info/content/vol6/issue1/full/4/index.html
diabetesincontrol.com, Nutritional Labeling and Point-of-Purchase Signs Work to Make Better Choices, 10 August 2010, http://www.diabetesincontrol.com/articles/53-diabetes-news/9680-nutritional-labeling-and-point-of-purchase-signs-work-to-make-better-choices
Elseth, M., Obesity numbers rise in 28 states, 29 June 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jun/29/obesity-rates-rose-28-states/
FDF, GDAs in Europe, 1 October 2011, http://www.gdalabel.org.uk/gda/background_european.aspx
Hackleman, E. C., Food label information: what consumers say they want and what they need, 1981, http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/display.asp?id=5840
Hartocollis, A., Calorie Postings Don’t Change Habits, Study Finds, 6 October 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/nyregion/06calories.html
Hills, S., Half of all consumers ignore food labels, 24 February 2009, http://www.foodnavigator.com/Financial-Industry/Half-of-all-consumers-ignore-food-labels,
Kersh, R., Obesity & the New Politics of Health Policy, February 2009, http://www.srm-ejournal.com/article.asp?AID=7351
Narayan, A., Figuring Out Food Labels, 2 May 2010, http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1986269_1986240_1986272,00.html
Neuman W., U.S. Seeks New Limits on Food Ads for Children, 28 April 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/29/business/29label.html?_r=1
Onyango, B. M., et al., U.S. Consumers' Willingness to Pay for Food Labeled 'Genetically Modified', October 2006, http://ideas.repec.org/a/ags/arerjl/10210.html
Poulter, S., GM foods 'not the answer' to world's food shortage crisis, report says, 16 April 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-559965/GM-foods-answer-worlds-food-shortage-crisis-report-says.html
Parvez, S., Processed food exports rise 41pc, 26 March 2009, http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=81403
Rosenthal, E., Some Food Additives Raise Hyperactivity, Study Finds, 6 September 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/06/health/research/06hyper.html
Smellie, A., That 'healthy' bowl of granola has more sugar than coke... and more fat than fries: Busting the diet food myths, 21 May 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1389515/That-healthy-bowl-granola-sugar-coke--fat-fries-Busting-diet-food-myths.html
Singer, N., Foods With Benefits, or So They Say, 14 May 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/15/business/15food.html
Soares, C., Sustainable Eating--The Low-Carbon Diet, 17 March 2009, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=sustainable-eating-the-low-carbon-diet
Suppan, S., The GMO labeling fight at the Codex Alimentarius Commission: How big a victory for consumers?, 13 July 2011, http://www.iatp.org/blog/201107/the-gmo-labeling-fight-at-the-codex-alimentarius-commission-how-big-a-victory-for-consum
Warner, M., Under Pressure, Food Producers Shift to Healthier Products, 16 December 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/business/16food.html
Warman, S., Reading food labels can help battle obesity, 16 September 2010, http://www.weightworld.co.uk/health-and-diet-news/reading-food-labels-can-help-battle-obesity-1917.html
Webster Family Wellness Center, Confusing terms make food labels difficult to understand, 7 May 2011, http://thewellzone.org/2011/05/confusing-terms-make-food-labels-difficult-to-understand/
WHO, Obesity and overweight, 2003, http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/media/en/gsfs_obesity.pdf
WHO, 20 questions on genetically modified foods, 10 December 2010, http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/
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