Misleading food labels do industry no favours

The trend toward marketing campaigns — including food labelling — with information that is not tied to food safety or human health is troubling, even damaging, to the food industry.

Note the absurdity of advertising “premium” water that is gluten free, non-GMO, certified kosher and organic.

Catelli has a durum pasta product that is verified by the Non-GMO Project. Durum is not genetically modified, and even if it was, it would make no difference to human health.

Ancient grains bread is no healthier than bread using modern grains.

This is also playing out in the fast-food industry with A&W highlighting that its beef is “raised without the use of hormones or steroids,” and its pork is raised without antibiotics. Yet where hormones are used on livestock, residuals are so minute — and regulated — that there is no health issue. As well, humans use antibiotics to prevent sickness; we are healthier as a result. Why is not using antibiotics on hogs better? Don’t we want healthy hogs?

It is against this backdrop that the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity conducted a survey on attitudes about food safety. The survey showed that 43 percent of Canadians feel the food system is going in the right direction, up from 30 percent in 2016. However, 43 percent aren’t sure if it’s on the right track, down from 50 percent the previous year, and 14 percent said the food system is going in the wrong direction.

Chief among concerns are the use of antibiotics, pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Concern about these issues hasn’t changed since 2016, leaving the CCFI to note that “existing efforts to move the bar on these topics haven’t reached the majority in the ‘neutral zone’ yet.”

Labelling and marketing campaigns are likely playing a role in all this. Food labelled non-GMO may imply that it’s somehow better than food that contains GMOs, though science shows there is no reason to believe that.

Anti-hormone and zero antibiotics marketing implies the meat is better, but again, there is no science behind that. The appeal is emotive.

Those polled by the CCFI indicated food safety, environmental impact, animal well-being, labour and human rights and business ethics formed the basis for their opinions about the food system. Above all, they value transparency.

Those polled said food companies have the major responsibility to provide information, followed by farmers and governments. Yet some food companies are using these dubious marketing schemes and labelling practices. They might argue they’re just giving customers what they want, but as the study shows, what they want is reliable information about healthy choices.

If we continue along this route, in the future, food producers will not use hormones, antibiotics or GMOs. Food will be more expensive, which is another serious concern expressed in the survey. Yet such a trend would make food no more safe and no more healthy.

Governments aren’t going to solve this issue. This is an industry problem generated by industry practices.

The report urges the food industry to engage those who are uncertain (the “neutrals”), millennials and foodies who love sharing information. These groups are likely to have the biggest impact on how the food system is perceived.

It will take a concerted effort between these groups and government information to make this happen. If the will isn’t there, we are destined to take the wrong fork in the road.

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