Food Fight: Why Label Bashing is Bad for Everyone

I’m here to hold an intervention. No, not that one! I’m talking about the one around the controversial GMO bill. Earlier this week the President signed national GMO labeling legislation. Vermont, which recently enacted their own GMO labeling rules stated it will stop enforcing that law, which has already changed the way major brands are doing business. As the final rules are negotiated over the next two years, fiery rhetoric from both sides can be expected, but another side of the GMO labeling debate is emerging.

Dan Charles of All Things Considered described an experiment he recently conducted outside of Whole Foods showing customers two different cartons of eggs. One had the USDA Organic seal and the other had the Non-GMO Project seal. Some consumers struggled to define the difference, but both seals delivered positive sentiment. Ultimately most opted for the less expensive non-GMO certified eggs. The future of the Non-GMO label is unclear in light of the recent legislation, but with all the GMO talk, it is at the forefront of decision making for many. With non-GMO labeled food growth outpacing certified organic, some organic companies are trying to cautiously fight back. Groups like the Organic Trade Association are reminding people that all organic food is non-GMO, which for your average consumer is a point of confusion.


More labels have meant more confusion piled upon an already bombarded audience. Marketers and advocates have had to be cautious to balance pushing consumption with the reality that there can be too much of a good thing. We hear “eat more fish,” but then hear concerns over sustainability, mercury and omega 6 inflammations. Produce advocates say “More Matters” but then reports come out on pesticide residues that fall below allowable limits but are hyped by the “zero tolerance” advocates. Credible voices can argue on both sides, leaving a head-spun consumer throwing their hands up in despair.

The messaging and understanding of food science and nutrition also evolves. In the 80’s all fat was bad, then trans-fats were the problem. Now, people have a greater understanding of saturated versus monounsaturated fats or simply the “bad” and “good” fats. The problem is when the message gets so simplified consumers don’t think beyond it. Fat-free and wholegrain had us forgetting about sugar levels in food. Antibiotic-free chicken is a term we hear, but is not allowed on packaging since all chicken is free of antibiotic residue by the time you buy it at the store.

Are you confused yet?

There are food certifications that tell us about how the food was grown, harvested, processed, and packaged. Consumers can look for assurances of sustainability, worker and animal welfare, and even what an animal was (or wasn’t) fed. It can be murky for marketers to educate the public on what a certification guarantees without coming across as denigrating another certification or practicing “fear marketing” toward competitors that do not have that seal. Consumers should see these certifications as beacons to draw them to products that share their values and remind them why it costs a little more. There is a line to walk that can remind people what a seal does NOT guarantee to make a point of differentiation, but when things turn negative we start to question other seals. As public trust in these third-party certifications deteriorates, cynicism takes hold and skepticism takes root. That is bad news for everyone.

A chasm remains between the ideal and reality. While farmer’s markets and knowing the grower are wonderful to experience, it does not meet the realistic needs of most people. You may strive to source everything from within 150 miles, but you are not ready to give up your coffee and banana for breakfast. It is OK to uplift these ideals, but when we start to demonize anything else that doesn’t match them we all lose. Positive Marketing has shown its impact and ability to connect with the hearts and minds of consumers in meaningful and memorable ways. In a season with so much negative, a positive message will be welcome by your audience.

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