During the 1990s, America struggled with E. Coli 0157:H7 in our food. Lives were lost, many of them children, and other victims were left with life-changing disabilities.
Throughout that time, a very affordable technology was available—but unused—to destroy E. Coli 0157:H7 and other food pathogens.
That technology, irradiation, was left on the shelf due to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling requirement: “Treated by Irradiation” and display of the international radura symbol, which looks like an upside down mushroom cloud. Few have seen products bearing this labeling because consumer perception research told food marketers that products with that label simply would not sell.
FDA initially proposed no labeling requirement for irradiated products, but anti-technology activists mounted a huge campaign. FDA gave in and the labeling requirement was imposed. Now, irradiation is used significantly in the food industry, but only in circumstances where the labeling requirement would not be triggered.
What FDA lost sight of then and we should not lose sight of again, is that label statements may be truthful, but misleading. Consumers perceived the irradiation label statement to be a warning. They were so badly misled by a government-mandated label statement that an affordable life-saving technology was ignored amid a crisis so great that it transformed operations in substantial parts of the food industry and required a public education campaign to teach Americans that hamburgers must be cooked all the way through.
Labeling can do more damage than intended
Today, anti-biotechnology activists are advocating GMO labeling. They know that they can’t prevail by directly opposing agricultural biotechnology. The benefits are simply too large. Instead, they are advocating “consumer right to know” labeling that is intended to scare consumers. They are well-funded by elements of the organic food industry. Why are some organic food industry interests involved? Money. If they can force a pejorative label onto the products of their competitors, organic sales volume will surge.
When we hear the “consumer right to know” argument, the question ought to be whether the labeling proposed is informing consumers of a significant fact about a product or, perhaps, an attempt to impose a pejorative label statement that misleads consumers. The way to answer that question is simple, but shamefully absent from government decision-making.
The starting point for all food labeling government actions should be a high quality consumer perception study to determine what consumers think the proposed label statement means. Such surveys are quick and affordable. In development of a regulatory labeling definition, starting with consumer understanding of the term is the simple path to clear communication. This all sounds quite obvious, but it is light years from how food labeling policy is now developed.
Understanding consumer perception is important
For example, FDA’s recent request for comments to develop a nationally uniform definition of “natural” in food labeling has started with FDA asking all the stakeholders what they want “natural” to mean. Industry groups generally marshaled rationale for why their products are “natural.” Meanwhile, NGOs fired up their fundraising machines with grassroots campaigns to protest what is not “natural.” At best, such comments would provide the building blocks for a contrived regulatory definition.
To its credit, FDA also asked stakeholders to provide consumer survey results. FDA ought to conduct its own consumer research to establish a starting point for a nationally uniform definition of “natural.” Consumer research can also identify how consumers are likely to misunderstand the term. As necessary, FDA may then establish protections. For example, if a substantial percentage of consumers wrongly perceive “natural” foods to be safer, FDA may require, at least for a time, that “natural” claims be accompanied by a statement that explains the product is not “safer” by virtue of being “natural.” That would be truthful and non-misleading.
Regulated words and symbols should be truthful and non-misleading
If starting with a definition based on consumer understanding is important in defining terms used in voluntary claims, it is even more important when government is compelling speech. Unfortunately, FDA’s new Nutrition Facts Label rule to force changes in almost all packaged food labels was adopted without testing how consumers understand the most substantial change in the proposal, the “added sugar, % Daily Value (DV)” statement.
In the absence of FDA research, industry-funded research that found the proposed “added sugar, %DV” label statement was so pejorative that over 60% of consumers would select less healthy food products to avoid “added sugars.” FDA ignored the industry-funded research and charged ahead despite the warnings of unintended adverse health consequences.
At its core, government is botching regulation of food labeling because it is failing to learn how consumers understand proposed label terms. Contrived definitions, unfamiliar symbols and scary notifications that mislead may advance a fashionable cause or crony capitalism, but they do not promote consumer understanding. When government controls what we say, especially when government mandates what we say, the consequences can be great. It is past time that our government embrace its duty to ensure that regulated words and symbols are both truthful and non-misleading. The starting point should be to ask consumers.
By John W. Bode, President and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association
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