WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2015 - Government mandates for labeling food to show its production process are a bad idea because they could mislead consumers and be used to belittle rival products, a panel of experts named by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) said in a report.
But governments also should not ban voluntary process labels that are true and scientifically verifiable because they can be helpful to both producers and consumers, says the paper by a group led by University of Delaware economist Kent D. Messer with St. Louis attorney Shawna Bligh and economists Marco Costanigro of Colorado State and Harry M. Kaiser of Cornell.
The report is timely because the Senate Agriculture Committee has announced plans for an Oct. 21 hearing on agricultural biotechnology regulation that is expected to focus on legislation that would regulate labeling of foods containing biotech products. The paper was debuted at a panel discussion in Washington at the office of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the lead advocate of legislation designed to create a uniform national biotech label standard.
“Problems arise when process labels are subject to consumer interpretation,” CAST says. Whether food really is “healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly” may be no more than an opinion that overrides credible science, it adds, “and the consequences might include increased food prices and the stunting of technological advances in agriculture.”
“To the extent that process labels help consumers substantiate better-informed and realistic expectations about product quality, they are a good thing,” the authors say. “Process labels can create value for producers and consumers by increasing the number of choices … and creating new market segments for producers. Labels can also help to remove food products, such as trans fat, that are scientifically shown to be harmful to human health.”
Labeling disadvantages, especially with regard to technology such as genetic modification, are compounded by news media outlets that tend to focus on bad news. When such labels provide information, the report says, it is “most likely negatively framed.” Media outlets are “much more likely to deliver ‘bad news’ than ‘good news’,” it adds. “Psychological and behavioral research has clearly shown that negative news dominates positive news.”
As an example of news media impact, the report cites the fallout from the 2012 ABC television accounts of meat products containing lean finely textured beef (LFTB), also referred to as “pink slime.” Although the product was safe and wholesome, negative consumer reaction led McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and other companies to reject its use.
Proliferation of process labels on food can cause increased costs for consumers “and rejection of new technologies stemming from consumers’ aversion to eating unknown products,” the CAST report says. “Process labels can be used by marketers to stigmatize rival conventionally produced products, even when there is no scientific evidence that food produced in this manner causes harm,” it adds. “These issues may cause a reduction in productivity growth because the uncertainty regarding the consumer response to a new technology may discourage investment in research and development of new science and technology in the agricultural sector.”
Beyond productivity, the authors believe, science-based technological progress in food can help generate progress in such areas as “nutraceutical” and functional foods. They see “a vast potential to use science and technology to produce healthy, tasty and safe products in an environmentally conscious way.”
“Governments should avoid imposing bans on process labels because this approach goes against the general desire of consumers to know about and have control over the food they are eating,” they say, and “can backfire because it can undermine consumer trust in the agricultural sector.”