The Labeling Shortcut

The FDA should spend less time worrying about labels and more time better regulating the entire industry. 

natural label.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by MikeyGen73/Thinkstock and pulsar75/Thinkstock.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration is currently accepting public comment on the question of whether it should define the word natural. It is asking the wrong question.

The word natural is already all over your food packaging—on your cereal, on your milk carton, on your frozen dinner. What does it mean? Many consumers think it means the product is good for them and for the planet. In fact, producers slap the label on almost anything, and the FDA has not yet done anything to stop them. It is considering doing so now in response to loud calls for a uniform legal definition. But can a label actually help make food better for us and for the planet?

Probably not. But in recent years labeling has taken center stage as the regulatory tool of choice for the food system anyway. The fight over genetically modified organism labeling is a prime example, as both proponents and opponents have poured millions of dollars into state-level voter referendums and legislation. Just Label It, a pro-labeling advocacy organization, estimates that opponents spent $45 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of all foods with GM ingredients. Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws mandating GMO labels, and legislation is currently pending in many other states. Congress continues to explore options for federal labeling regulation; a recent bill that would have preempted mandatory state laws and created a voluntary scheme passed in the House but failed in the Senate.

Labeling is frequently applauded as less invasive than traditional regulation and more protective of consumer choice. The theory behind labeling as an alternative to direct regulation is that, armed with good information, consumers will make good choices for themselves and, if they want to, for the environment. Producers will respond to these market signals and produce healthier and more sustainable food. 

But the food system is messy. Even the experts can’t always tell which food is healthiest. In the environmental context, assessing whether the local, organic option is better than a conventional imported product requires a complicated life-cycle analysis. It matters not only how many miles the item traveled to market and whether pesticides were used but also the farm’s soil conservation and runoff management practices, the fuel efficiency of the mode of transportation, the type of fertilizer used, the source of irrigation water, etc.. Most labels focus on one or two of these factors, arbitrarily prioritizing certain data points, such as whether a product was grown with pesticides, in the case of the organic label, over others, such as whether a farm practices sustainable crop rotation. In other words, “transparency” obfuscates.     

The difference between natural and unnatural, like the difference between organic and conventional and GMO and GMO-free, is, itself, meaningless. These labels provide very little information either about how healthy the product is or about the size of its environmental footprint. Instead, these labels create opportunities for food producers to take advantage of the subset of consumers willing to pay more for perceived benefits. Indeed, the organic label is administered not by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service or even its Food Safety Inspection Service but instead by the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Even if we assume labels can help consumers identify healthier or more sustainable foods, reliance on labeling to regulate the food system risks leaving some, or even most, consumers behind. Not only does it take money to buy truly high quality food but consumers must also have the time and resources to research the available options. Label advocates argue that transparency protects consumers’ freedom to prioritize. Some prioritize health, and others prioritize affordability. But is this a trade-off consumers should really have to make? Relying on transparency alone essentially creates two food systems: one that provides nutritious, safe, and environmentally responsible food to the wealthy; and a second, much larger system that provides chemical-laden food to everyone else, with dire environmental and health consequences.

Even more fundamentally, do we want consumers to be responsible for arbitrating this trade-off?  Transparency burdens consumers with the responsibility to wade through reams of information armed only with their disposable income, such as it may be, as a means to fix massive systemic problems. More powerful food system actors—corporations that process, distribute, and market the vast majority of food eaten in this country and government agencies that regulate them—are off the hook. 

This is not to say that consumers have no role to play in food system change. Labels can change consumer behavior and raise consumer awareness in ways that affect actions in places other than the supermarket (e.g., the ballot box). Labeling (and other mechanisms for transparency) can also be a vital part of comprehensive regulatory schemes. For instance, disclosure requirements are essential components of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act—the requirement that certain water polluters publish data about their pollution levels allows the Environmental Protection Agency and public interest groups to hold those polluters accountable when they violate pollution standards.

But let’s not pretend that labeling is an enlightened replacement for well-crafted regulatory systems that reign in environmental externalities of production and limit health consequences of consumption. And let’s recognize that the biggest winners are likely not consumers but the companies that use these labels to extract price premiums.

The FDA has jurisdiction over plenty of truly important food issues that could benefit from revised regulations—antibiotic use on feedlots, safety of food additives such as salt and carrageenan, safety practices of food processors, to name a few. Instead of asking whether it should define natural, the FDA should be asking what food is acceptable to eat. The agency should focus its limited resources on determining how to better exercise its regulatory authority to ensure that any consumer walking into the supermarket can buy anything without worrying about whether it is safe for her children or for the environment. It should embrace its responsibility as the federal food watchdog and hold food producers, processors, distributors, and marketers accountable for the health and environmental risks that they generate.

So should the FDA define natural? A label may succeed at reducing some of the consumer confusion that the word generates (although beware the expensive game of whack-a-mole that might follow, as producers move through various other unregulated synonyms—wholesome, hearty, pure, earth-friendly, kid-friendly, rustic). The FDA might, for instance, define “natural” food as that which is produced without the use of petrochemicals—petroleum-derived chemicals currently used in many fertilizers, pesticides, food additives, food packaging, and food processing. This type of label would probably be better than no regulation at all, and it may be the best we can do at the moment.

But here’s a better reason that the FDA should proceed: We can use it as an opportunity to have a public conversation about the failures of the food system. The public comment period gives concerned eaters a medium other than consumption choices to express their preferences for better food. Just because labeling is the best we can do today does not mean we should give up on demanding more. Tell the FDA what matters to you as a food consumer. Tell the FDA to do more. Comments are due May 10, 2016.