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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you can find here: There are standards for packaging and product claims – lots of them – but I think they’re seeming outdated in today’s label/claim-crazy grocery world.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.






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