FOOD LA­BELLING - FACT OR FICTION

M ar­ket­ing beats science at our peril

The Poultry Bulletin - - FRONT PAGE - By An­dre Wester­veld

The in­crease in ques­tion­able la­belling claims to dif­fer­en­ti­ate prod­ucts has be­come an is­sue of con­cern for aca­demics, reg­u­la­tors and con­sumers around the world. A walk through the aisles of a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket will re­veal some in­ter­est­ing mar­ket­ing claims made on prod­uct pack­ag­ing – some valid, some spu­ri­ous at best.

Cap­i­tal­is­ing on the bom­bard­ment of mar­ket­ing mes­sages, we see com­pa­nies in­volved in de­cep­tive mar­ket­ing that ex­ploits con­sumer con­fu­sion to in­sin­u­ate that their prod­uct is su­pe­rior to other equiv­a­lent prod­ucts on the mar­ket. One is left won­der­ing whether con­sumers can be­lieve what they are be­ing told on the la­bels of their food, cos­met­ics, de­ter­gents and health prod­ucts. Think of how many times you have seen the claims “All­nat­u­ral, or­ganic, hor­mone­free, Gmo-free, an­tibi­otic-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, ecofriendly, detox, zero trans-fats, new and im­proved, guar­an­teed re­sults” - and many more.

In the con­text of food pro­duc­tion, is­sues of sus­tain­abil­ity and food se­cu­rity, the trust­wor­thi­ness and the un­der­stand­ing of la­bel in­for­ma­tion dis­played on food pack­ages has never been more im­por­tant. Con­sumers face a lot of con­fus­ing and con­flict­ing lan­guage that tends to over­shadow the real nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits of food. For ex­am­ple, there is sim­ply no dif­fer­ence be­tween the nu­tri­tional value of con­ven­tion­ally grown food and or­ganic crops. Yet how many con­sumers un­der­stand this and can make the dis­tinc­tion be­tween nu­tri­tional value ver­sus a pro­duc­tion method?

Do con­sumers re­ally un­der­stand what it means for their food to be an­tibi­oticfree, or whether it would be eth­i­cally ac­cept­able to leave a sick an­i­mal to suf­fer if an­tibi­otics could treat it, or whether we can bring safe and af­ford­able food to our ta­bles with­out vet­eri­nary medicines? In­stead of cre­at­ing mis­lead­ing food la­bels as a means of short­term dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and profit gains, we should be ed­u­cat­ing con­sumers so the re­sul­tant food choices they make are in­formed.

It’s easy to ex­ploit con­sumer con­fu­sion as there is a vast dis­con­nect be­tween con­sumers, re­tail­ers and pro­duc­ers, with the for­mer two rarely ex­posed to the re­al­i­ties of food pro­duc­tion, on-farm dis­ease man­age­ment as well as the in­creas­ingly im­por­tant sus­tain­abil­ity chal­lenges of farm­ing. As an in­dus­try, we need to use all the re­sources at our dis­posal to share in­for­ma­tion and dis­pel the myths – press

re­leases, web­sites, mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als, so­cial me­dia, ex­pert round­tables and de­bates and pack­ag­ing to trans­par­ently ed­u­cate con­sumers to seek out valid in­for­ma­tion to in­form their choices and de­ci­sions, rather than leave the door wide open for mis­in­for­ma­tion, mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion and ul­ti­mately, con­sumer mis­trust.

Ir­rel­e­vant la­belling can only con­trib­ute to the con­fu­sion that will dam­age con­sumer re­la­tion­ships and trust in the in­tegrity and sus­tain­abil­ity of our food chain. Left unchecked, con­sumers will in fu­ture dis­re­gard all such mar­ket­ing claims - valid or not - which not only hurts con­sumers and busi­ness, but it will also harm the en­vi­ron­ment as there will be lit­tle in­cen­tive for any­one to in­vest in the sus­tain­abil­ity of farm­ing, and how we bet­ter use our very lim­ited re­sources to their best ef­fect and out­comes.

Re­tail­ers also need to be re­minded that tak­ing a purely le­gal per­spec­tive to­wards mar­ket­ing prac­tices is very sim­plis­tic. Even mar­ket­ing ethics texts iden­tify that ev­ery­thing that is le­gal is not nec­es­sar­ily eth­i­cal (Smith and Quelch, 1993). As cor­po­rate cit­i­zens, busi­nesses need to com­ply with the law, AND they need to be­have in a man­ner that ben­e­fits so­ci­ety.

His­tory has shown that reg­u­la­tions alone do not en­sure that firms pro­vide con­sumers with com­pletely ac­cu­rate and trans­par­ent in­for­ma­tion. Mar­ket­ing mes­sages pur­veyed to­day may not nec­es­sar­ily sup­port the long-term in­ter­ests in en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity and hu­mane an­i­mal hus­bandry fur­ther down the line. Us­ing in­ac­cu­rate mar­ket­ing hype and catchy la­bels to dif­fer­en­ti­ate is short-sighted.

Fi­nally, it’s all about choice. Con­sumers are en­ti­tled to have a choice over the pro­duc­tion meth­ods of the food they eat. For them to do that in an in­formed man­ner, they need real facts and com­plete pic­tures that avoid over-sim­plis­tic and hyped rhetoric. We need to work to­gether to­wards soundly ed­u­cat­ing con­sumers for the long-term sus­tain­abil­ity of the en­tire agri­cul­tural sec­tor. These are com­plex and highly in­ter­linked is­sues - hardly de­bates that can be ad­e­quately ad­dressed in a sin­gle, my­opic mar­ket­ing claim on a food la­bel.¡

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