The following is an excerpt of an opinion piece in U.S. News & World Report by former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on the issue of misleading food labeling.
For the food industry, 2017 was the year of the label. Whether 'non-GMO' or 'no high fructose corn syrup', 'no added hormones' or 'gluten free,' consumers are increasingly demanding more information about what's in their food.
A report last fall by Nielsen found that 39 percent of consumers would switch from the brands they currently buy to others that provide clearer, more accurate product information. Additionally, 73 percent reported feeling positively about brands that share the "why behind the buy" information about their products.
On its face, it makes sense. If consumers say they want transparency, tell them exactly what is in your product. That is simply supplying a certain demand.
But the marketing strategy in response to this consumer demand has gone beyond articulating what is in a product, to labeling what is NOT in the food. And this is where "simple" supply and demand is no longer simple. So-called "absence claims" labels – those that arbitrarily tell a consumer what isn't in a product, rather than what is – represent an emerging labeling trend that is harmful both to the consumers who purchase the products and the industry that supplies them.
For example, Hunt's put a "non-GMO" label on its canned crushed tomatoes a few years ago – despite the fact that at the time there was no such thing as a GMO tomato on the market. There still isn't today, yet the label remains. Some dairy companies are using the "non-GMO" label on their milk, despite the fact that all milk is naturally GMO-free, regardless of the type of feed given to the cows that produce it. In addition, the "no added hormones" label has become de rigueur within the poultry industry, even though federal law already makes it illegal to sell poultry in the U.S. that was raised with added hormones.
While creating labels that play on consumer fears and misconceptions about their food may give a company a temporary marketing advantage over competitive products on the grocery aisle, thereby boosting the bottom line, long term this kind of ploy will have just the opposite effect: by injecting fear-mongering into the discourse about our food, we run the risk of eroding consumer trust in not just a single product, but the entire food business.
Click here to read the entire commentary.