Does America Need New Food Labels?

By George Anderson, RetailWire 

Democratic Party sponsors in the House and Senate have introduced new legislation that would create a single standard for front of package labeling for food products. The bill would create definitions to address the use of terms such as "natural" and "made with whole grain" that may give the impression that certain foods are more healthful than they really are.

The Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2015, according to Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ), Rep. Rosa DeLaura (CT) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT), is needed because major food labeling provisions have not been made to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act since 1990. The result is that consumers do not have the information they need on packages to make fully informed decisions.

"Childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years and is a huge public health problem in this country that puts millions of American children at risk. Healthy eating is critical to combating this epidemic. That is why it is so important that when families make the effort to eat nutritious, healthy food, the labels on food products help them make the right choices — not confuse or mislead them," said Rep. Pallone in a press release to announce the legislation.

"When 'whole grain' waffles can be made with white flour and 'all natural' ingredients can contain synthetic high-fructose corn syrup, it's clear our food labels are due for a makeover," Laura MacCleery, director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science and Public Interest, said in statement published by The Hill.

Discussion Questions:
Do you agree that front of package food labels can be misleading to consumers? Should retailers support new labels that define terms such as "healthy" and "natural"?

Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:

Of course packaged food labels can be misleading. Just look at all the products labeled "gluten free" that, by their very nature, contain no gluten. Ditto for "organic," "cage free," etc.

Retailers are food curators and what appears on their shelves is therefore a curated offering. If an operator wants people to believe and trust him or her, accurate labeling is a great place to start. There is a pragmatic aspect to all this as well. By offering ... well, let's call them ambiguously labeled products ... the retailer is essentially endorsing the manufacturer's sometimes creative use of regulatory language.

And who is the consumer likely to hold responsible for the mild deception? Probably not those Shakespeares of labeling lingo.
Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

Clearly many food packages are misleading due to the largely unregulated nature of marketing claims. It's very odd though that there's a motive to label "whole grain" and "natural" when there is a massive effort at the federal level to avoid or prevent labeling of GMOs. In fact, the Grocery Manufacturer's Association on behalf of the product brands they represent claim that changing labels (moving some ink on a package) will be too costly for consumers to bear. If it's crucial to regulate and properly label these packaging terms, where is Congress to regulate and properly label GMOs?

So yes, it would be great to see retailers and brands support a new paradigm in labeling that clarifies exactly what people are consuming, but it's not in the cards because obfuscating unhealthy and damaging ingredients helps the bottom line.
Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

Of course the front of packaged food labels can be misleading. Was there ever a marketing moment that wasn't misleading?

I'm more concerned that the government follow-through on limiting advertising of prescription drugs on TV than I am with food labels. To me, that's the most pernicious of all.

One thing I've realized over the past five years (since I started recording everything I eat in an app) is that calories are really cheap in this country. You can get an entire day's worth of calories for less than $5 at a fast food joint.

I think if the government is going to spend money on dealing with this, an education campaign would be more useful. I'm bombarded with anti-smoking ads every day on TV. Why not do the same with "healthy" (not), "natural" (not) foods?

I think we should have a reasonable expectation for people to educate themselves, or help them get educated. But we can't legislate everything.
Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

I think it would be useful for misleading terms to be defined. That said, I'm not sure that the terms are always neutral. What may be healthy for me may be a serious health problem for you. And "natural" is not always better for you. Same with organic.

And no, retailers should stay out of it.
Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Labels are not the issue. Consistent and easily interpreted terms are the issues. If the legislatures can identify the correct issue, good solutions are not likely to be forthcoming.
Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

Yes. Consumers of all ages have expressed their dissatisfaction with labeling information, on both the front and back of packages. Food manufacturers and food retailers need to get out in front of this issue (no pun intended).

Why do we need legislation to do something which our customers and consumers demand? If we are to dignify our customers, action should be taken without needing Washington's input. Public policy makers should not be the intermediaries between buyers and sellers in this simple and straightforward issue of not misleading buyers.
Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

The BrainTrust seems to agree on this issue, as I do. It is rightfully the job of the companies to mislead to sell more product. Similarly, it is consumers' right to know what they and their families are ingesting.

The only issue I can add is that if you get the government to legislate definitions, which I think is necessary, can you keep the food companies' long arm of money out of sculpting definitions for their purposes?

Or maybe we should just have one label ... "This food was made in a factory!"
Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

Read the entire story and RetailWire discussion at

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                                                                         Mid-December 2015