Food label claims: true, misleading, or outright lies?

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Consumers face a barrage of confusing, sometimes dubious, claims on food labels. This could end up harming consumer trust in the food value chain, and substantially damaging the industry and the environment.

Food label claims: true, misleading, or outright lies?

The increase in questionable claims on labels aimed at product differentiation has become a concern for academics, regulators and consumers around the world.

A walk down the aisles of a supermarket will reveal interesting marketing claims on product packaging – some valid, others spurious at best.

Capitalising on the bombardment of marketing messages, some companies have become involved in deceptive marketing that exploits consumer confusion by insinuating that their products are superior to equivalent products on the market.

How many times have we seen the following claims: “All-natural, organic, hormone-free, GMO-free, antibiotic-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, eco-friendly, detox, zero trans-fats, new and improved, guaranteed results”, and many more?

In the context of sustainable food production and food security, it has never been more important to have trustworthy and understandable label information on food packaging.

Consumers face confusing and conflicting language that tends to overshadow the real nutritional benefits of food. For example, there is simply no difference between the nutritional value of conventionally grown food and organic crops.

Yet how many consumers understand this and make the distinction between nutritional value and a production method?

Do consumers really know what it means for their food to be antibiotic-free, or whether it would be ethically acceptable to leave a sick animal to suffer if it could be treated with antibiotics?

Short-term profit gains
Instead of creating misleading food labels as a means of short-term differentiation and profit gains, we should be educating consumers to make informed food choices.

As an industry, we need to use all the resources at our disposal to share information and dispel the myths.

What is needed are press statements, websites, marketing material, social media, expert roundtables and debates, as well as packaging that transparently educates consumers to seek out valid information to guide their choices, rather than leaving the door wide open for misinformation, misinterpretation, and ultimately, consumer mistrust.

The dairy industry has not escaped these challenges. Dr Jude Capper, a UK-based livestock sustainability consultant who spoke at the Milk Producers’ Organisation conference in 2016, pointed out that there was an urgent need for producers to actively inform consumers about dairy production and products to combat their growing mistrust.

Who can forget the ‘rbST-free’ labelling tussle that raged on South African retail shelves for years?

Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) is a supplement which increases the level of a protein that facilitates milk production. When combined with the fundamentals of good farming, it can help a cow produce up to 15% more milk per day.

Because it works with the cows’ natural means of producing milk, there is no difference between the milk from cows supplemented with rbST and those that are not. When farmers use rbST, it helps them achieve increased milk production from the same number of cows.

This helps our natural resources go further by reducing the use of water, land and feed for each litre of milk produced.

Despite scientific evidence of its safety, and the fact that it was deemed safe by the FDA and regulators in more than 50 countries including South Africa, as well as the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, some retailers and processors used the ‘rbST-free’ label to differentiate what is essentially a commoditised product.

According to Capper, most people think that the “no hormones added” label means a product has no hormones at all. However, hormones occur naturally in all animals.

Marketing campaigns that purport that organic milk is hormone-free are inaccurate; all milk, whether produced by a cow, goat or sheep, contains hormones, regardless of whether the animals are raised conventionally (pasture or TMR) or organically.

The ‘rbST-free’ icon had to be removed from all marketing media, including packaging and advertising, as the rbST-free claims were in contravention of the Agricultural Product Standards Act No. 119 of 1990.

Food labelling ethics
Irrelevant labelling can only contribute to confusion that will damage consumer trust in the integrity of South Africa’s food value chain. If it is left unchecked, consumers will, in future, disregard all such marketing claims, whether they are valid or not.

This will not only hurt consumers and businesses; it will harm the environment, as there will be little incentive for anyone to invest in sustainable farming methods.

Retailers should also be reminded that taking a purely legalist stance on marketing practices is simplistic. Even marketing ethics literature identifies that everything that is legal is not necessarily ethical.

As corporate citizens, businesses are compelled to comply with the law, and behave in a manner that benefits society.

History has shown that regulations alone do not ensure that companies provide consumers with completely accurate and transparent information.

Marketing messages purveyed today may not necessarily support the long-term interests of environmental sustainability and humane animal husbandry further down the line. In short, using inaccurate marketing hype and deceptive, catchy labels to differentiate products is short-sighted.

Finally, it is all about choice. Many consumers prefer one food production method to another, and they should be entitled to choose accordingly.

To enable them to do so in an informed manner, they need real facts and a complete picture that avoids over-simplistic and hyped rhetoric.

We need to work together towards sound consumer education to ensure the long-term sustainability of the agricultural sector.

These are complex, interlinked issues – hardly debates that can be adequately addressed in a single, myopic marketing claim on a food label. – Staff reporter

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.

For more information, phone André Westerveld, regional director of Elanco Animal Health, on 012 657 6200.