Food Labelling and Discrimination

Food labelling is generally thought of as kind of an obviously good thing. Labelling provides information. And information, as they say, is power. And (spelling out the unstated premises, here) it is good to give consumers power.

But power (as is also commonly said) can be used for good or for evil. And so (connecting the dots) it’s at least possible, in the abstract, that labelling will at times give consumers information that they will use badly. Whether there are instances in which consumers do use information for bad purposes is a separate question. So far, all I’m pointing out is the possibility.

So, here’s a possible example. According to this story in the Sydney Morning Herald,
Fish farmers want new labelling rules, fish farmers in Australia are asking the government there to impose stricter country-of-origin labelling requirements on restaurants. Why? The Australian fish farmers want their product labelled so that consumers can discriminate against foreign fish. It’s pure nationalism and protectionism, of a kind that stifles trade and tries promotes the interests of one group of fish farmers over the (equally important) interests of another group.

It’s worth noting that there are probably cases where nation-of-origin labelling isn’t just xenophobic. But I don’t see any evidence that this is one of those cases. Is there some ethically-compelling reason why consumers at Australian restaurants need to know that the grilled barramundi they’re considering ordering was farmed in the U.S., rather than in Australia? Maybe there’s a food-miles argument here, but given the efficiency of international shipping, I’d have to see that argument spelled out to believe it.

So, two different points are on the table, here.

First: the point that labelling can provide information that can be used for bad purposes.

Second: that labelling by nation of origin may provide a case in point.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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