The PJ Tatler

Do We Need Stronger Food Labeling Laws?

In a story which may have escaped your radar last week, USA Today reports that “66% of consumers wrongly think ‘natural’ means something.” Elizabeth Weise reports:

When consumers see the word on meat or poultry, 70% think it means no growth hormones were used in the animals feed and 60% think the animals got no antibiotics or other drugs in their feed.

The problem is, consumers are wrong.

Under federal labeling rules, the word natural means absolutely nothing.

The executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center signals “a strong consumer mandate” for stronger food labeling regulations. But is that the best answer to this problem?

First, we must consider the extent to which the “problem” actually exists. Marketing buzzwords are as old as barter, and consumers remain responsible for the inferences they make without verification. No doubt, there are instances where truly fraudulent statements are made in product labeling. But we have a process for dealing with that through the courts.


(Today’s Fightin Words podcast on this topic. 11:54 minutes long; 11.48 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)

Indeed, as the USA Today article relates, “several district court judges stayed cases by consumers claiming companies were misleading them by using the term ‘natural’ on beverages that contained high fructose corn syrup.” Natural, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

To the extent consumers wish for foods without hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, preservatives, and other vestiges of modern food production (which make it possible for billions of people to eat cheaply and billions more to eat at all), the burden of finding such edible treasures falls squarely upon them.