Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Profitable Ignorance

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 14, 2014 --  

Aggressive marketing practices have ruined the credibility of food labels. Big businesses aren't the only ones to blame.

When the marketing department at grocery giant Ahold USA decided to re-label meat as "USDA Graded" it was as a winning move for the bottom line. Instead of selling good cuts as "USDA Choice" and inferior cuts as "USDA Select"1, the supermarket chain used the vague label to pass off the cheaper meat without having to offer a corresponding discount. To marketeers, there is nothing more profitable as ignorance.

Unfortunately for the marketing department, the United States Department of Agriculture didn't like this idea. The whole point of their grading system was to inform consumers, so co-opting it to remove any useful information was in clear violation of their labeling requirements. Ahold USA has since announced it will stop the practice.

Critics of America's organic and localvore food movements will likely jump on this case as yet another example of the excesses of the factory food industry. But before they get all high and mighty with their rejection of factory food, consider the fact that the same crowd has enabled entire new avenues of marketing abuse by inventing new terms.

Chief among these new terms is "organic". Not just for hippies anymore, the "USDA Certified Organic" label is now sought after by millions of mothers shopping for wholesome food for their children. And where do we find out about the labeling requirements for organic food? Well from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, of course.2 Ah, yes, more marketing! Now the factory food industry can figure out a way to justify an extra dollar on the price tag by putting that marketing label right on the package.

And the organic label is just the start. This summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began overseeing the "gluten free" label, requiring that at most 20 parts per million of wheat gluten be in any product so labelled.3

What is "gluten-free"? a consumer might ask. Well, even a consumer doesn't know, it would be reasonable to assume that a gluten-free product is better than a non-gluten free one. Heck, it might even be worth paying a few extra bucks for one (marketeers take note.) Hence, we see products like hard candy labelled as "gluten free" even though there is no reason for them to ever have contained gluten in the first place.

Unfortunately, food labeling is rife for abuse. Even if labeling terms are technically accurate, there is way to force understanding of what they mean. What percentage of people who buy gluten-free bread need to do so because of celiac disease? What percentage of them are buying it because it is part of some fad diet pushed by some idiot celebrity?

More regulation does nothing to address this problem. In fact, regulation often helps empower the factory food industry by allowing companies to lobby for regulatory changes sought by their marketing departments.

The sad truth is that consumers are so easily manipulated by marketing terms, that food labeling has become nothing more than an industry tool. This is not just true for factory food outlets, but also at small-time farmers' markets, where terms like organic, gluten-free and cruelty-free are displayed with reckless abandon.

For savvy consumers who want to buy good stuff, the best strategy has long been to establish a trusting relationship with a small time vendor, and ask plenty of questions about what's in a product and where it comes from. This strategy has worked for literally thousands of years, but in parts of Americas where big supermarket chains are the only option, this is admittedly a non-starter. Hourly employees at the end of a supply chain have no idea what they are selling.

Yet for those lucky enough to have access to independent grocers and farmers' market stands, the same rules still apply. Just because a sign says something is USDA prime, organic, or farm fresh doesn't mean its true. Ask questions, taste for yourself, and maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.

Related Web Columns:

Not Quite Cruelty Free, September 17, 2013

The Rise of Manitoban Sushi, Jan 17, 2012

Taste be Damned, September 5, 2006

Organic Feces, May 5, 1998


1. Washington Post, Major Supermarket Chains Changed How They Label Meat, Surprising Customers and USDA, October 13, 2014

2. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, Labeling Organic Products, October 2012

3. Food and Drug Administration, Questions and Answers: Gluten-Free Food Labeling Final Rule, August 5, 2014