[Editor's note: This is the second in a series of Food Dive posts from guest columnist Sam Vance.]
Like food, labels are something we need, but are at constant risk of abusing. The FDA regulates what can, as well as what must, be put on our food product labels. The Nutritional Labeling Act of 1990 required the handy chart of nutritional facts that we all know and love. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which passed in 2004 and went into effect in 2006, mandated that the 8 major allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soybeans, wheat, tree nuts, and peanuts) be included on the back of the label under the ingredients.
So what changes, if any, are we in store for in the coming year? Let's take a look:
Despised by both the scientific community as well as the granolas, the term 'natural' is all but dead and out of vogue. Look for this meaningless term to disappear from labels within the next year or two.
(Image credit: Wikipedia/Karen Horton)
Organic foods certainly aren't going away anytime soon. It is the fastest growing segment of the food industry, and there are many people who think that organic food is in some way better than conventional. The food companies aren't going to argue with consumers willing to pay more for the same food.
We may see pressures for the USDA to more stringently regulate what is considered organic, especially overseas. Currently, certified third parties are allowed to certify foreign growers as organic. This is a big problem for some people, and when it comes to food, there is no shortage of protectionism and good old-fashioned xenophobia.
(Image credit: Flickr user photologue_np)
It turns out that Americans have a distrust of China. While there have been a rash of Chinese safety snafu's, they are a growing economy and a huge population. As shown on page 38 of this Indiana University Poli Sci thesis, incidences of food borne illness and related deaths in China have dropped every year since 2007. The numbers aren't too far off from what we see in the U.S. The thing is that China has three times the population, so per capita, its food supply is actually safer.
Country Of Origin Labeling is, in many ways, an extension of the protectionism and xenophobia we observe with organic labeling. COOL requires that muscle cuts and ground versions of beef, veal, lamb, goat, pork and chicken — as well as fish, shellfish, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, fruits, vegetables, and ginseng — include the country of origin on the label.
Countries such as Canada and Mexico objected to the rules, calling it protectionism — which it kind of is. The World Trade Organization also disagreed with the law, ruling that it unfairly favored American products and provided a disincentive for US companies to use any imported goods covered under COOL.
(Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture)
So the US proposed changes to COOL to comply with the ruling, but the proposed changes are actually way more harsh, as the country where a product is born, raised, and harvested must be listed. This will make for an incredibly confusing label, and more people will just look for meat grown in the U.S. — a move countries like Canada, Mexico, and Argentina fear.
In no other issue has the science been so overwhelmingly settled, but the public so disproportionately frightened. There are over 2,000 different validations of various GM foodstuffs, and the only studies that are in any way negative are the ones put forth by anti-GMO activists.
(Image credit: Wikipedia/Rosalee Yagihara)
As I've said before, the food industry listens to consumer demand, not science and reason. Right now, the Grocery Manufacturers Association is planning to lobby for a Federal program to establish voluntary GMO guidelines in an effort to get out in front of legislative efforts without taking a side and alienating consumers.
Any further efforts to mandate GMO labels will be fought — and they SHOULD be fought.