Process Labels: Helpful or Harmful?


Background image: Joshua Rainey Photography/Shutterstock; Foreground image: Matthew Cole/Shutterstock [adapted]

A new report by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) discusses the impact labeling could have on food products. In the age of transparency, do labels actually provide helpful information for consumers?

The CAST report says “process labels” can have value but can also have unintended consequences. Examples of process labels include “rBST free,” “vine-ripened,” cage-free,” “antibiotic-free,” and “contains/free of genetically modified organisms.”

According to the report, “Labeling some credence characteristics can send a signal to uninformed consumers that they should avoid or be worried about the overall safety of the product. For example, a consumer could be reluctant to consume products that are labeled to contain GE ingredients, not because of the objectively definable inherent risks of such ingredients, but simply because the label itself sends a warning signal about the product.”

Findings from the CAST report show consumers want a sense of control over foods they eat and that consumers are not well-informed about modern agriculture technologies. The CAST report’s authors recommend the following:

  • Mandatory labeling should only occur in situations in which the product has been scientifically demonstrated to harm human health.
  • Governments should avoid imposing bans on process labels because this approach goes against the general desire of consumers to know about and have control over the food they are eating.
  • Voluntary process labeling must be true and scientifically verifiable, and claims that a product “contains” or is “free of” a certain production-related process should also include labels on the package stating what the current scientific consensus is regarding the importance.

Consumers increasingly have a “big is bad” mindset, and acceptance of scientific information can be challenging. In 2014, CCFI’s consumer trust research provided a model for making complex and controversial technical information relevant and meaningful to bring balance to food-related conversations and help consumers make informed decisions about food. Will the recommendations from the CAST report help consumers make informed decisions, or will they create more confusion?

CCFI consumer trust research has shown that consumers want and expect transparency in all aspects of the food system. And while our testing of seven basic principles of transparency provided guidelines, food system stakeholders want more information on what transparency truly means to consumers in order to provide better transparency in the marketplace.

CCFI’s 2015 consumer trust research will focus on transparency — how it relates to building trust around policies, practices, performance, verification and illustration. The results can be used by food system stakeholders to develop transparency strategies that will increase trust in their products, their processes and their brands. The survey findings will be summarized at the 2015 Food Integrity Summit in November.