This coming summer of 2018, it will become mandatory for some foods to be labeled if they contain any genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Despite the FDA releasing study after study that demonstrated the safety of GMO foods, along with a longer-term review that stated “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods,” customers demanded labels on GMO foods in response to actions by marketers in the food industry. They were afraid of their food, and from that fear came an overwhelming call for transparency from the food industry.
For customers, this issue is about transparency on food nutrition labels, but for food and diet marketers, it’s about something else. It’s about ethics and where that line is in the sand.
The Nutrition Label and the Ethics of Food Marketing
Food used to be food: an eggplant was an eggplant, milk was milk, grape were grapes.
Then one day, a marketer got a brilliant idea. They’d set their food apart by pointing out some special trait it had that they were especially proud of. Maybe their chickens spent most of their days outside of cages, roaming about. Other marketers said, “We have to compete with that!” and suddenly their chickens were also cage-free, plus they were also laying low sodium eggs.
Those eggs were great for people with heart and kidney disease, never mind the cholesterol, or the fact that all eggs are low in sodium.
Anyway, so began the battle of the food marketers. Maybe it wasn’t eggs, maybe it was orange juice or frozen waffles, but whatever it was, some marketer took a meaningless claim, something that was already a best practice in the agricultural realm, or a characteristic inherent to the product by its very nature—and promoted it as the next hot trend.
Americans are already so confused about what it is they should be eating that using food packaging to indirectly condemn everything from salt to fat and carbohydrates is only making the problem much worse. In the “sex-food-danger” trifecta of human motivators, hitting two out of three isn’t doing too bad.
Tricking Consumers into Paying More for Nothing
Or maybe two out of three is pretty bad, just this one time.
When it comes to food, there’s not a lot of easy transparency. Food labels help to offset the imbalance of asymmetric information, but a customer still can’t look at an orange and know that what’s inside is edible or even safe to eat. They can’t examine lettuce at a microscopic level to be sure there aren’t microbes on the leaves that will make them sick. When it comes to food, the rules should be different.
Instead of mandatory labels for ingredients deemed safe by the highest food safety authority in this country, maybe there should be stricter laws on how marketers can market food to customers. After all, how can it be ethical to sell a regular bottle of water for $1 and a “gluten-free” bottle of water for $5 when there is literally no difference besides the packaging?
Everyone wants to sell more of their product, but even with food, especially with food, it can be done well simply by educating the consumer, pointing out the great features of the product and creating a connection between them and the product. The increasing reliance on absence labels (this food doesn’t contain gluten) and misleading positioning of more expensive foods as being healthier is a kind of marketing that’s simply hurting the customer.