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Report: Mandate Food Process Labels Only if Product is Harmful

Man looking at meat package labelA report by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) published Monday states that “process labels” for food should only be mandated when the product has been scientifically demonstrated to harm human health.

Whether voluntary or mandatory, labels such as “Certified Organic,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified,” “rbST free,” “Fair Trade,” and “Free of Genetically Modified Organisms” can increase information sharing, quality assurance and value, but they can also have unintended consequences, such as increasing food prices or implicitly casting the conventionally produced product in a negative light, according to the CAST 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,” reads the report. “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.”

In its review of the current uses of food process labels and their effects on food and the agricultural sector, the CAST report found that consumers want to have a sense of control over the foods their families eat, producers know more about the quality of the products than consumers, consumers are not well-informed about the technologies used in agriculture and food, consumers use process labels as cues to infer quality traits, and consumers consider process labels and adjust their behavior accordingly.

In response to these findings, the report authors made three recommendations:

  • 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.

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