During early October, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) issued a report recommending various updates to food labels that could be implemented to more effectively inform consumers of valuable information related to food processing.
The report cited the value given to consumers when food is labeled regardless if voluntary or mandatory, such as “Certified Organic,” or “Fair Trade,” but the report also noted the many drawbacks that also comes with this type of process labeling. The report noted that often times the consumer may infer quality traits about a food item based upon the label which “often is not based on scientific evidence.” Consumers may also be susceptible to process labels that will “stigmatize rival conventionally produced products, even when there is no scientific evidence that food produced in this manner causes harm.” An example the report cites is a study by Kanter, Messer, and Kaiser (2009), which found “rbST-free” labels alone reduced “participant’s willingness to pay for conventional milk by 33% compared to subjects who did not see the rbST-free label prior to considering buying the conventional milk.”
The report makes three primary recommendations to change the labeling. The first proposal is there should only be mandatory labeling in situations where “the product has been scientifically demonstrated to harm human health.” Second, “governments should avoid imposing bans on process labels” because the possibility of undermining “consumer trust in the agricultural sector.” Third, there should be conditions applied to the voluntary process labeling; 1) “labeling claims must be true and scientifically verifiable” and, 2) if a product has process labels which state “contains” or “free of,” then there should be an additional labeling of the “current scientific consensus regarding the importance of this attribute.”
The report makes another suggestion that policymakers should consider an alternative design for “next-generation process label[s].” Instead of using a dichotomous label system, there should be consideration of a scaled score or letter grade. The report uses the example of buildings which are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, a certification system which uses four levels.