Can’t escape the food label noise

If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, most people do not actually enjoy the food shopping experience. In order to stretch the all-mighty dollar, it is most likely the big box store is the routine food shopping destination. Unless you shop at 3 a.m., the trip to the grocery store can be easily compared to rush hour traffic in downtown Chicago, especially if food samples are being peddled.

It seems everyone is in a hurry and we all have better things to do. I get it. Many times it is about how fast I can get in and get out without developing shoppers’ rage. For me, dodging carts and politely staying out of the way is easier said than done. So, heaven forbid if you actually pause for a moment and compare the products or simply read a food label. I cannot tell you how many times I get the strange look for actually checking the country of origin on my produce or scan a label.

Everywhere we turn, special interest groups are advocating for new terminology to appear on the food label. The most recent push in the United Kingdom by the Royal Society for Public Health is advocating for “activity equivalent” labels. This label tells consumers how many minutes they would have to engage in several types of exercise to burn the calories in one serving size.

Food companies are filling the labels of food products with nutritional facts, market hype and what they perceive as the latest jargon that will sell its product. Organic, GMO-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, sustainable, vegan-fed, cage-free, antibiotic-free, all natural, free range, grass-fed, pesticide-free claims loudly cover food products’ packages, drowning out the real nutritional facts that consumers should actually read. 

After all, the name of the food marketing game is grabbing the 10-second attention span of today’s grocery shopper. It must be plain exhausting or more like job security to constantly change the information on a food package, adjusting to the trending food movement of the month. I often wonder what the actual price tag of a food item would be if we removed all the noise and revert back to simple, factual information — ingredients, calories and serving size. It would definitely be cheaper since the farmer on the average receives only 16 cents for every food dollar spent and the remainder is wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution.

As repeatedly documented by Jayson Lusk and his team of researchers at Oklahoma State University in the monthly Food Demand Survey, consumers say taste, safety and price remain the most important values when purchasing food.

So, if taste, safety and price are the priority of the U.S. consumer then why are we filling the food label with noise? In a previous National Hog Farmer blog post, senior staff writer Kevin Schulz shared that specialized, niche marketing only accounts for 1.8% of the U.S. market. In reality, at the end of the day higher income households are the only ones that can truly afford the upgrade options on food — paying for the real cost of raising food for the niche markets like organic or antibiotic-free.

For the agriculture community, the entire food label debate is frustrating. Do we scream louder until we have no voice or do we put in earplugs? Farmers and ranchers along with their supportive organizations and businesses are at serious crossroad: focus on the real consumer buying food that is affordable, safe and tastes good or spend valuable time and money drowning out the racket generated by special interest groups. Unfortunately, hitting the “mute button” will not stop government regulations or food companies from setting standards to the tune of the special interests group. Perhaps, it is time to support the truth and not marketing ploys with hidden agendas.

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