The Quiet and Growing Success of Private Food Labeling

Most mandatory government food labeling schemes stink. Private ones usually don't stink. Problem, meet solution.

“Just Label It!” That was the cry in California last year as Prop 37, which would have required products containing GMO foods to be labeled as such in the state, went before voters.

Columnists around the country cited polls showing more than 90 percent of consumers nationwide support mandatory labeling and, just weeks before the vote, that support for Prop 37 within California outnumbered opposition by a margin of more than 3-to-1.

With those polling numbers, Prop 37 appeared certain to pass. Until it failed.

Similar measures elsewhere also failed to pass until earlier this month, when Connecticut adopted the nation’s first-ever mandatory statewide GMO labeling law. Supporters hailed the effort as an important victory. But even aside from legitimate questions over whether the law would pass constitutional muster if challenged, its laughable triggering mechanisms mean the law almost certainly will never be implemented.

In any event, the issue of state GMO labeling might soon become a moot point. Earlier this year, word began to spread of a secret meeting between Walmart, FDA officials, and others where, it was alleged, the retail giant, America’s largest grocer, and other large food sellers that have opposed state labeling requirements would push for the federal government to adopt a national GMO labeling standard. Such a law would almost certainly preclude states from adopting their own laws, and strike down any already in existence.

I agree with The New York Times and many others, including Reason’s Ronald Bailey—who doesn’t appear to be a fan of any federal mandate—that compulsory GMO labeling is the wrong answer.

And I’d oppose any such federal requirement for almost exactly the same reasons I opposed Prop 37.

The truth is that most federal labeling schemes are flawed at best, and often involve conflicts and compromises that rob meaning from the label.

The USDA’s widely panned takeover of organic labeling in this country is perhaps the best example.

Menu labeling is another. Disputes over menu labeling, including this one I wrote about earlier this year, have slowed the FDA’s plans to roll out a national menu labeling scheme.

Federal labels involving international commerce also threaten to bump up against treaty obligations. A WTO court ruled that USDA “country of origin labeling” (COOL) runs afoul of WTO rules. And earlier this year, a WTO court ruling threatened the federal government’s “dolphin-safe” label.

What sort of labeling should the federal government require for packaged food products that travel across state lines? Beyond requiring basic branding information like product name and company mailing address, mandating accurate ingredient and allergen labeling, warning about consuming raw agricultural products like ground beef, spinach, or raw milk, and prohibiting fraud, I think the federal government should leave the rest of food packages up to the market.

That doesn’t mean that consumers who want to know all sorts of things about their food should—or would—be denied the opportunity to learn those things.

In fact, there’s growing evidence that more food businesses are giving consumers exactly the information they want.

This spring, Whole Foods announced it would require its suppliers to label all GMO foods. Wonderful—even if the company did so after supporting Prop 37.

Just this week, national burrito chain Chipotle, which also supported Prop 37, realized like Whole Foods that it can act without being forced to do so by the government and began labeling all GMO ingredients.

This flood of voluntary information is not limited to the area GMO foods. Even as the FDA drags its heels on issuing regulations for restaurant menu labeling, big companies are filling that void thanks to consumer demand.

Panera Bread began posting calorie information in all its stores voluntarily more than three years ago. McDonald’s followed suit last year.

And this week, Starbucks announced it would start providing calorie information for all its products starting next week.

Add to these private, voluntary initiatives to meet consumer demand many longstanding private labels like kosher, halal, gluten free, Weight Watchers, and others. In that same spirit, a newer, growing crop of private certification labels is seeking to meet the dietary and informational needs of all sorts of consumers—from humane certification and scoring that certify a particular level of animal treatment to Paleo approved labels.

Private certification and attendant labeling has the potential to avoid nasty governmental disputes and lobbying that delay issuance of labels and water down the meaning of those labels once they're issued. Private solutions can provide consumers with the specific information they care about most at the point of purchase.

The federal government could never do so much. And so it should begin right now to do much less when it comes to mandating what must appear on food labels.

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  • ||

    The USDA’s widely panned takeover of organic labeling in this country is perhaps the best example

    .

    Yup. The nightmare of paperwork that's necessary for a small farmer or rancher to get certified is ridiculous.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Just this week, national burrito chain Chipotle, which also supported Prop 37, realized like Whole Foods that it can act without being forced to do so by the government...

    OMG. When people start thinking like this, can Armageddon be far behind?

  • Floridian||

    It will be anarchy! People acting without taking orders first. Next thing you know they will want to choose their masters and have say in the way things are run. He'll they might even perform lewd sexual acts with one another without the proper paper work.

  • robc||

    I blame the jews, they started it with the whole K thing.

  • Floridian||

    Well I think we all blame the JOOZ. Controlling the weather, banking, and now food labeling. For such a small minority they sure wield a lot power.

  • robc||

    Like libertarians.

  • ||

    Libertarios o los judíos: ¿Que es mas malo?

  • Floridian||

    Well since there are no female libertarians and there are female Jews and women are the worst, then I am gonna have to go with.....JOOS!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I recently ran across someone who asserted that Monsanto was evil incarnate because it was controlled by the JOOZ, who force farmers in the Third World to raise non-organic crops and grow KOSHER food.

    I informed him of the fact that there is no such thing as "kosher" seeds and the concept was ludicrous in itself.

    I hope he committed suicide.

  • Floridian||

    I was 22 before I met my first open anti-Semite. I thought he was joking at first and then realized the crap he was saying he believed. I thought that whole WW II thing pushed them underground for good but I was sadly mistaken.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    They're becoming more and more open. Especially after Occupy filled their heads with JOOISH BANKSTERS 9/11!!!!

  • Redmanfms||

    I've met quite a few leftist Jew-haters.

    Europeans are positively lousy with Jew-hate, especially Scandinavians. For that matter, the most unabashed virulently racist/bigoted people I've ever met are Eurotrash. And naturally, if the conversation ever turned to politics/social issues the first thing any of them would want to talk about was American racism and race issues.

    Even though I'm not Jewish, I have a Jewish surname and the few contracts I've worked in Europe I've frequently been asked if I was Jewish. It's really creepy. The best was when I would go out to eat and I'd hear comments like, "It's very good, but they don't serve kosher food" or, "I can't believe you are eating that, it's not kosher." After screaming at the client supervisor, "I'm not fucking Jewish and if I hear you mention anything of, or pertaining to Judaism within earshot I'm going to snap off your fucking arm and beat you to death with it, and the same goes for the rest of you inbred Nazi motherfuckers" in front of all his people the bullshit stopped.

    It's pretty safe to say I really don't like any of the Europeans with whom I've worked.

  • Ted S.||

    This post wasn't on H&R when I loaded it up a few minutes after 8:00 AM.

  • ||

    Let's not quibble about who posted what when. The important thing is to live in the moment and enjoy Baylen for the great defender of liberty that he is. And also to note that I out-firsted Fisty.

  • Ted S.||

    Let's not quibble about who posted what when.

    But I know there's a Baylen post every Saturday morning at 0800 ET. I should be here when I come on at 0805, and if it isn't, it shouldn't be backdated!

    And also to note that I out-firsted Fisty.

    Děkuji vám!

  • ||

    But I know there's a Baylen post every Saturday morning at 0800 ET. I should be here when I come on at 0805, and if it isn't, it shouldn't be backdated!

    Those who control the past control the future.

    Děkuji vám!

    Není zač!

  • ||

    Also, I give you permission to tykat me.

  • Ted S.||

    I only used vám because I would have had to look up the declension of ty. :-)

    Looking it up, i see it would have allowed me to use another ě, too. Take those Unicode characters, server squirrels! :-)

  • ||

    Bonus points if you attempt to pronounce Třtěno (my FIL's home village)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    As a courtesy on weekends I always try to wait for someone else to post before I do. Today I had to wait for what seemed like forever.

  • ||

    That's the same courtesy Michael Jordan showed when he let all those pitchers strike him out. I appreciate your gentlemanlyness.

  • Sevo||

    Fist of Etiquette| 6.22.13 @ 8:39AM |#
    "As a courtesy on weekends I always try to wait for someone else to post before I do."

    What a guy!

  • Virginian||

    Last night I spoke to a European who asserted that Americans were stupid because they didn't understand time zones. He then showed his superior European intelligence by asserting that it was already 3AM in California because it was 11 PM in Virginia.

    Then he opined that Americans were racists, shortly before going on a long long rant about the Arabs, the Turks, the Africans, and the French ruining the Netherlands.

  • ||

    Welcome to my world.

  • Ted S.||

    You're a racist who thinks it's 3AM in California when it's 11PM in Virginia?

  • ||

    American time zones are simply a tool used to exploit the negro!

  • Floridian||

    I meet people who have relocated to Florida all the time that tell me how great wherever they left was and how Florida sucks in every way possible. I always listen politely before asking if they put a wall up after they left so they can't go back. I never get a valid answer.

  • Virginian||

    The worst is the people who whine about that, and then when you ask why they moved they say something related to the fact that there are jobs here or that the cost of living in Big Northern City is too high.

    And of course they are diligently voting Democrat in their new home, because the government is shockingly underfunded and small in Virginia.

  • Floridian||

    I like the "my house was worth so much more back north".
    Yes but you came here for cheap housing and lower property taxes so what did you expect?

  • mr lizard||

    I've come to two realizations: 1. Tampa and Ft lauderdale are just northern colonies 2. I'm really glad our capital is close to alabama

  • Floridian||

    Why are you glad that Tallahassee is near Alabama?
    Also I lived in new port richie which is near Tampa in the tenth grade and was the only native in my grade. Also I could NOT get sweet tea there.

  • Robert||

    The most fun thing in Fla. geography is Pepsicola, the capital of the short-lived Republic of West Fla. But once I addressed mail to my Michigan friend Nancy as being in Upper Canada, and it got thru in the normal time.

  • creech||

    It works the other way too. People visiting Amish country always gush about how they want to live the simple life, etc. etc. I asked an Amish friend just how many converts are moving in, now that their great way of life has been discovered. Answer is always "none."

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Forgive my ignorance, but can you convert into the Amish church?

  • creech||

    Atlee Miller, an Ohio New Order Amish father of ten, tells you how to do it at amish-heartland.com.

    In a nutshell: come live with us, go to church, get a job, learn Pennsylvania Dutch, do all this for a year and then get educated in the ways of the church, and finally, get voted in by the church. Voila. It’s that simple.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Interesting. Thanks!

  • Robert||

    If you know Yiddish, you already know Penna. Dutch.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You think you have it bad? Massholes come up to N.H. and do the exact same thing...and they're only a 45 minute drive away from Boston!

  • Special Circumstances||

    You're in the Manchester area right? I'm from the white mountains and the hordes are starting to arrive for summer... Fucking flatlanders.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Twenty - thirty years ago you'd frequently run into people like that in CA. And they slowly turned my great state into what it is today.

  • Floridian||

    Broward & Dade county are dragging Florida into the progressive camp. Luckily we have the military pan handle to balance it out for now but it is not growing as fast as south Florida. I fear in 20 years or so we will have state income tax and gun registration.

  • Virginian||

    I call them locusts. The most aggravating one was a guy who would fit in well here with his rants about taxes and meddling bureaucrats, yet was a staunch and vocal supporter of the Democratic Party. He left Jersey because of the taxes and the big government, yet continues to vote for taxes and more government.

    In conclusion, fuck New Jersey.

  • Floridian||

    It would be awesome to have people moving to Florida from all over the country because they are fed up with big government. Sadly the branding won't let them vote that way. "Hey, what do I look like, a back woods hillbilly. Of course I vote for unions and governed investment." Duh.

  • Entropy Void||

    As a sixth-generation Central Floridian, I have heard this sooooooooooooooo many times. "That's not how we did it back in (Joisey, Ohio, Bitchagain, Taxachussets, etc.)" Once my Southern Gentlemanly composure is breached, my response is usually somewhere along the lines of: "I-95 goes both ways, Bi-otch. Ain't nobody keepin' ya here."

  • Virginian||

    And of course, on a country scale it's always fun when you get to drop this bomb on a leftist"

    "Well why don't you crazy rightwing gun nuts start your own country?"

    "We did."

  • Ted S.||

    and the French ruining the Netherlands.

    Don't the French ruin everything?

  • Mark22||

    European intellectuals have hated America for centuries. There are plenty of books on the history of this, for example "Uncouth Nation" by Markovits. It's nothing we did, and it's nothing we can do anything about; European culture and society needs to change.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Whaole Foods and Chipotle are large national chains with the resources to devote to this sort of thing. On the other hand, the article is applauding the beginnings of a movie or video game ratings system for food with all the absurdities that entails. Bravo, I suppose.

  • JW||

    The freedom to choose is such a bitch, eh?

  • Sevo||

    ..."Chipotle, [...], realized like Whole Foods that it can act without being forced to do so by the government"...

    A REVELATION!
    Imagine, I can go to a ball-game today without being forced to by the government!

  • Sevo||

    And I see FoE beat me to it even as he ground his teeth waiting for the first post.

  • ENDelt260||

    I trip up here:

    "What sort of labeling should the federal government require for packaged food products that travel across state lines? Beyond requiring basic branding information like product name and company mailing address, mandating accurate ingredient and allergen labeling, warning about consuming raw agricultural products like ground beef, spinach, or raw milk, and prohibiting fraud, I think the federal government should leave the rest of food packages up to the market."

    Why on earth should the fedgov mandate labeling of allergens or raw spinach consumption warnings? What is the distinction between this laundry list of forced labels that are "ok" and forced labeling of GMOs or whatever the next forced labeling scheme will be?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Me being a Devout Scienfoologist, and all, I quiver in fear, with every bite that I take, that non-Scienfoology-type folks, with their non-Scienfooology-type sub-humanoid-type, defective, infectious, non-Scienfoology cooties, might be contasminating my food! I DEMAND a truthful labeling scheme to fully inform me if my food has been looked at by non-Scienfoologists!!!

  • baergy||

    "warning about consuming raw agricultural products like ground beef, spinach, or raw milk, and prohibiting fraud," This part of the above statement is actually even sillier than the rest of the labeling samples. The government has no right to tell people what they can and can't consume nor what may or may not be best ! ! Mankind has been eating RAW MEAT safely for eons and the same for plants and dairy products. It was NO government that found ways to keep foods from spoiling or hosting pathogens. Plus we already have a multitude of laws against fraud and theft !!!

  • baergy||

    you

  • cavalier973||

    Barbacoa, white rice, black beans, hot salsa, cheese, and sour cream.

  • coma44||

    "Even as the FDA drags its heels on issuing regulations for restaurant menu labeling"

    As some one who caters parties and large Barbeques I don't want or need to have the government making me "label" the menu. Sometimes they just need to stay out of an already over complicated business.

    ....oh wait that goes for everything they do.

    We have way to many "regulations' and way to many "laws" already.

  • Mike Moskos||

    The irony of the industry's anti-labelling bias is that it is forcing buyers to seek out food ONLY from farms they trust. If it ain't labelled--subject to the scrutiny of all, you must assume the worst. Asking the vendor is good, but that story can change. Only a written label or website is subject to everyone's scrutiny.

    Example: my favorite farmers' market vendor sells pastured eggs from a local producer. There is zero labeling of what the chickens eat: a well-treated pastured chicken can still eat the same crappy commodity feed the chickens in the concentration camps eat. Now, how often do you think I buy those eggs? Only when I run out of those from an Amish farmer who fully discloses what the chickens are fed.

    Just refuse to buy from those who won't label and watch how fast they line up to label.

  • rosemaryadverd113||

    up to I saw the bank draft which was of $8085, I did not believe ...that...my father in law could actualy receiving money in their spare time from there labtop.. there friends cousin had bean doing this 4 less than twenty one months and just cleard the mortgage on there home and bourt themselves a Acura. this is where I went, Go to site and open Home for details
    http://WWW.JOBS31.COM

  • VictorSubia||

    I think smaller certification programs are the way to go. I know those of us in the Paleo community fully support The Paleo Foundation and both the Paleo Approved and Paleo Friendly programs, since they can do what Organic can't...

    Be honest and not screw people over for big-business.

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