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.