Truth in Labeling. It’s what we need

Our society has a longstanding belief that there must be truth in advertising. In fact, it’s such an article of faith for almost everyone that I should put the phrase in caps and call it Truth in Advertising.

It’s so fundamental that the advertising industry itself embraces and proclaims the principle. Go check Advertising Standards Canada’s website: That organization and similar organizations around the world know they’re dealing with many ethical and legal issues in advertising and hope to keep their members and the public aware of the importance of not misleading people with their ads.

It’s obvious to me that whoever oversees product labelling needs to freshen up the standards and ethics in food labelling, because right now it’s an awful mess and it’s creating mass confusion, fear, paranoia and misunderstanding amongst the general public. In a column in this week’s newspaper I summarized some of the messes, which you can find here: There are standards for packaging and product claims – lots of them – but I think they’re seeming outdated in today’s label/claim-crazy grocery world.

I’m not a big fan of government intervention or over-regulation. I like free markets. But I also don’t believe markets can exist without policing and clear rules. Freedom and anarchy aren’t the same thing, with the rule of the jungle being just another form of bondage. Right now it looks to me like we’ve got big areas of product labelling that have gone out of control and others that are dysfunctional and dangerous. It’d be nice to think that product marketers could simply police themselves, by erecting codes of conduct and practice, but that’s got to be backed by a reformulation of what is actually legal and acceptable. Professional codes can self-police the grey areas, but right now there’s far too much grey and some blacks-and-whites need to be established.

Should marketers be able to put stamps and logos on products that seem official but don’t have any regulatory or rigorous professional backing? Every time I go to the grocery store there seem to be more and more of these certifications that suggest there’s some specialness and trustworthiness to that particular product, but most I’ve checked out have pretty dodgy foundations, with little policing or independence to them.

I’d guess a majority of the public believe it means something when a product proclaims itself to be “Natural,” but doesn’t realize that it actually doesn’t legally mean anything. A food product I regularly consume claims to be made from “All-natural” ingredients, but the product itself fractionates, reformulates, modifies and alters those basic ingredients to such a degree that it strikes me as outrageous that it is calling itself “All-natural.” Obviously the product marketers believe using the “natural” term will have a positive affect on consumer behaviour, but that’s the problem. It has no meaning, but it has an effect. It’s actually not anything anyone would reasonably describe as “natural” if they knew how it was made, but few will bother to check out the ingredients.

How about “organic?” That’s a term that has a real meaning, and regulatory requirements for anyone who wants to use the approved logo, but it isn’t rigorously policed by independent parties. There are still a lot of “good faith” assumptions in the organic system and light oversight. It’s a good system as far as it goes, but I suggest it’s too weak on enforcement. (Read about the Canadian system here.)

What about the GMO labelling debate/issue? If we’re going to require GMO labelling, shouldn’t there be a clear reason for doing so? By labelling GMOs, are we suggesting they are unsafe, like high sodium levels and trans fats? How about GMO-free labelling? Shouldn’t that be policed better?

Lots of meat products claim to be “Humane.” What precisely does that mean?

How do we fix up this mess, which is confusing and misleading millions of consumers?

As a Canadian, I’m sick of our national propensity for having Royal Commissions for any tricky issue that comes up. However, somebody’s got to come up with a comprehensive overhaul or rework of food labelling rules and regulations so our products can legitimately seem to be claiming to be clear things, and to actually be such, and that somebody is going to have to be somebody governmental or Parliamentary. We’re not going to have a Royal Commission for something like this – thank goodness – but some sort of task force needs to get on it if we want to have an effective, high quality food production system, informed consumers, and an honest marketplace.





About the author

Ed White — Ed White has specialized in markets coverage since 2001 and has achieved the Derivatives Market Specialist (DMS) designation with the Canadian Securities Institute.

Also by this author

  • Dayton

    Consumer is always right. You should know that Ed.

    • As you well know Dayton, the overwhelming majority of consumers support the current system. If they didn’t, there’d be food riots.

      Marketing can never be allowed to trump science. Never.

      • razorjack

        Can you cite a source for your claim, Misha?

          • Denise

            To ask the uninformed populace who only watch the filtered and unbalanced opinions in corporate -controlled mainstream media (MSM)for their information,of course, that’s the response you are guaranteed to get! In fact many people do not even know what GMOs are!
            Now we know just how propaganda works. Control the message and omit important facts.
            The questions should be: Are you concerned that majority of the food crops are genetically engineered to withstand strong and repeated applications of pesticides? Do you mind that there are residues of these chemicals in the air, water, and food your children eat?

          • Most GMO crops do not require pesticides.

          • Cletus DeBunkerman

            Technically right, but actually dishonest spin.

            The FACT is that most all GMOs were engineered to use Roundup/glyphosate in their cultivation and farmers will not spend the extra money and technology fees unless they plant to use the trait and grow them with cancer causing glyphosate.

          • Right is right. Most GMOs have nothing whatsoever to do with glypgosate (Roundup).

          • Denise

            The most important crop a farmer should grow is one using heirloom seeds and keep those seeds in safe storage. They can be used year after year to plant a crop, unlike GMOS which have no reproductive strength,after one season, or long term viability. The day will come when they need this escape route. How dangerous for farmers to rely only on GMO seed which keeps them totally dependent on agrochemical and treated seed companies.

          • Cletus DeBunkerman

            Except the facts don’t support [this] …

            Over 94% of GMOs were genetically engineered to be cultivated with glyphosate. Farmers pay extra for these traits and they are not going to throw away money on traits they don’t use.

            We’re living in the real world …

          • Cletus DeBunkerman

            That looks like survey with self selecting respondents.

            Nothing scientific about that and it proves nothing.

          • If consumers were concerned about GMOs causing cancer, wouldn’t it be an election issue?

          • Harold

            Clever. How can a consumer become concerned when a GMO label has never been applied to the food that they consume since the introduction of GMO. If you want to speak of fairy tales, how about this one. After sleeping beauty ate the unlabeled apple, she realized she had an election issue.
            Seriously, Where is the link for consumers? Cleverly, the link is in the “white papers” held by Monsanto; disabling a detectable trail. Truth is, no one knows exactly how much of the GMO product they are actually consuming. Without labeling, Consumers are not eating it – right? In contrast, a fierce multi-million dollar anti-label lobbying, (estimated above $68 million) is led by Monsanto, Chemical Corporations,Food and Beverage corporations, for non-disclosure of GMO. Moreover, tell me how to eliminate all GMO from my diet, so that I, and my doctor, can test the health benefits. Further, choosing a product to purchase, is not an election issue, but a corporate issue. Earl’s can verify this. The only Election issue we have, is not forcing our politicians to show due diligence to what has already been written on their own “signed” paper.

          • Why do GMOs have to be labelled in order to become an election issue?

          • Harold

            As I have already stated; It is not an election issue. The election issue is: electing a representative of the Queen, who will show due diligence to what the Queen has already written and sealed (signed) on paper, and given to the citizens of Canada. Elections are merely the process to do just that. The “paper” that i am referring to, is one that you and most Canadians have never read. Hence your question.(I believe you to be a USA Citizen) Let me explain. The Police in all their forms, Judges, Lawyers, Prosecutors, Politicizations, Premiers, Lieutenant Governors, Prime Minister, Governor General- (also our Commander-in Chief) all swear an Oath-of-Allegiance to the Queen. Not an Oath of allegiance to Canadian citizens. In tern, the Queen gives Canadians “papers” with her Seal affixed, indicating our undeniable rights when facing those who’s allegiance is sworn to Her, and Her Crown. The Crown is not the Queen; it is her Corporation only.(payable to the Crown) In tern, Elections are held so that Citizens can freely choose amongst themselves, an Honorable representative,
            who will show due diligence to those “signed” papers in the Citizens hands. (In the most part, politicians are unaware of the contents of these documents as well. lucky them) The Canadian travesty is that Citizens do not have those “papers” in their hands to read, nor to enforce. Deliberately they are held back by our Government, meaning that they are not made public, nor are the contents thereof, taught in our School systems Canada-wide. Those documents are the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are the only inalienable rights that Citizens posses when facing our Government. Without this knowledge, the Government remains as self-determining as they are today, and we sit blindly accepting it. within those “rights”, whether or not to label GMO- is already answered. It is not an election issue. Its a lost “paper” Issue

          • Cletus DeBunkerman

            It is for many people.

      • StopGMO

        … Food riots? lol “Marketing can never be allowed to trump science.” Never.” That’s right but the science you speak of is actually pseudo-science & pseudo-science is not science.

        • So… millions of farmers in the United States, Canada, Australia and India have been duped for almost 2 decades?

      • Rob Bright

        Coming from a well known pro-GMO, pro-agrochemical industry spokesperson and activist, I know to take any comment you make with a huge chunk of salt. … Clearly the majority of consumers want truth in labeling, AND want GMOs labeled. …

        • Do consumers also want to know if crops were bred with nuclear mutagenesis?

      • Harold

        I think you are basing your opinion of “consumers support” on the imbalance of sales between the two products. When I talk to your contented people, they tell me that organics are too expensive to buy. Others are indifferent and therefore support the system by default. All said that there purchases were motivated by cost. Those buying organics were motivated by health and flavor. Most said that they themselves would not use the chemicals nor procedures used by the food industry within their own gardens and homes. None of them said that they would prefer “GMO” if the price of “organic” was one cent lower in price. No “riot” here. Your “overwhelming” is rather under-whelming to me. I asked and so can anyone else.
        As an observer with no “white papers” to back me, “food riots” occur where there are hungry and access to a plentiful supply of food is denied. Locked doors and/or out of reach high pricing- is food denied There is not an opponent so fierce and so dangerous – as a hungry man.
        It is true that “marketing can never be allowed to trump science”. It is also true that marketing and science can never be allowed to “trump” the consumer. Never.
        to respond to your other comment, “does Canada’s organic regime work or not?” It was never intended to work. As you may or may not know, the term organic has no Identifiable object as it includes all plants, gmo or not. There is only the one- modified. Original does not require a label – only the modified. In other words, a carrot only needs a label if modified and so forth. Redundant labeling Simplicity is going to a super market and seeing only one sign- Genetically Modified Organism. This factual simplicity leads to spotlights and questions and exposure directed towards the industry, to which it does not want. Therefore, here comes the new term “Organics” Magically from one, there are now two spotlights with the extra pointing in the opposite direction — a direction where none were needed- toward the original plant. Now with “white papers” in their hands, Industry is saying that the original was never good enough. “Organized confusion”. While there is industry led confusion, industry is in the background planting their seeds. Organized confusion- is to divide the consumer and conquer.
        On a side note- like Rob Bright, I know where you’re coming from. I looked. Also the word Trump – is being redefined in the USA as we speak. It’s only minus the rubber [GRAS] stamp.

        • The reason organic foods are too expensive is precisely because the organic industry rejected GMO seed in the 1990s.

          Meanwhile, seeds developed through nuclear and chemical mutagenesis are considered perfectly acceptable in organic circles.

          • Harold

            Regarding your first statement, you have not further concluded that if “Organic” were wiped out, the price of “GM” product would skyrocket. (seed patent) What prevents this eventuality is the expensive “organic” industry. Secondly, you also imply that had there never been “GMO”, “Organics” would have remained at a fair price. Interesting. Do I detect punitive measures?(legislation) Moreover, a person need not look back to 1990 to understand this “GM” industry. Its as alive today, as it was yesterday. (this includes PCB, agent orange, which is still killing)
            Your second comment relates to the forced concessions imposed onto the “Organic” Industry by the “Gm” industry. Please don’t insult me by saying that the “Organics” Industry is “self-determining”. That being said, nuclear and chemical mutagenesis is something Mother Nature does, and can do. Contrarily, lab process is “for-profit”-Patent, and the GM industry have convinced Legislators that “lab” is “mother nature”- hence inclusion. Mother nature can correct errors; but the lab cannot. I will except a spontaneous mutation as provided by nature, and accept those consequences, before I will ever accept a labs “say so” of their “artificial nature”. I know you like the term “Anti-science”, and so do I, but the “Organic” product is science, and always is, and GMO is merely manipulation, and that is not science. GMO is in fact “anti-science”, but carefully twisted. (the “A”-bomb was anti-science) How about those shellac derivative based-coated Apples for ya?
            As I past stated, the term “Organic” I do not accept, as it is all inclusive and therefore, cleverly, has no identifiable object. (deception) When a product is altered, the only label needed is, Genetically Modified Organism, Modified, and so forth, indicating that change. In other words, we all know what an apple is, just tell us when its treated or modified. Nonetheless, there is a Industry reason why labeling cannot be made this simple, and it is not consumer confusion.
            I know a bigger story than the one you’re telling and I don’t desire that you agree with me, but more importantly, that you can still agree with yourself.

  • “It’s a good system as far as it goes, but I suggest it’s too weak on enforcement.” What does this mean? Does Canada’s organic “regime” work or not?

    • Dayton

      Yes! it works

  • grinninglibber

    The “clear reason” for GMO lableing is that consumers want it.
    Don’t attempt to convolute it with other issues.
    There has been no long term safety testing of GMOs and there are serious concerns about safety.
    98% of GMOs actully grown are for the purpose of being sprayed with insecticides.

    • Nonsense. Most GMO crops do not require an insecticide.

      • Stephen Daniels

        Meant to say herbicides Mischa.Thanks.

        • Most do not require herbicides either.

          • Stephen Daniels

            Most do require well not require but if you do not want excessive weeds or tillage herbicides are neccessary .And have been for 50 years.

          • richard

            No pesticides, no herbicides??? I guess thats why the high clearance sprayer is the busiest machine on the farm??? And those colourful seeds….oh yeah, they’re just Skittles???…..And this Ed, in living colour, is how “truth in advertising” becomes….”better living through denial” .

          • Do your research.

    • Stephen Daniels

      There are no serious scientific concerns about health safety of GMO’s.Some concern from people who believe any garbage they read on the internet.And 98 % of crops GMO or not are sprayed with insecticides.Consumers demand labeling label GMO’s doesn’t matter to me.

      • GMOs are no pesticides.

      • Harold

        Its always a pleasure to listen to one who can enlighten doctors and the scientists of his own choosing, and while unable to supply consumer demands, does this all within the confines of his own farm. The pleasure is all mine.

        • Stephen Daniels

          Thanks Harold.

  • richard

    All the noise and confusion is nothing less than “blowback” to the longest PR disaster in the history of humanity…. “Eating” is the most personal and political decision an individual can make on a daily basis, for a lifetime…..Agribiz sophistry and hyperbole cannot halt the sea change of persons choosing to function at a higher frequency through more enlightened food choices…..”Better living through denial” is done….still twitching, but finished!

    • Stephen Daniels

      Glad to hear people wanna function at a higher frequency.We’ll see how much more they are willing to pay for that privilege.

      • richard

        Sixty billion USD in North America alone…..a hundred billion globally…. and all in spite of spine numbing invective from the sponsors of status quo ignorance…..

  • Harry Siemens

    Yep.. Ed I’m with you.. as long as we don’t give more reason to charge higher prices. But maybe that’s a given

  • Harold

    Ed, for what it’s worth, you have valid concerns of a broken system to which most observers can see and understand. However, if you have read my response to Mischa Popoff and can validate it as true, then you will know who the task force is – and why it is not, and cannot be in place to meet your concerns.