Are Labels the Answer (to Everything)?

An increasing number of issues are generating calls for labelling of food and beverages. In addition to the labelling required by most governments (size, ingredients, nutritional characteristics) there are now calls for labelling nation of origin, carbon footprint, water footprint, genetic content, and so on. The list seems endless, and is growing.

Some calls for labelling make pretty good sense, such as when the public seems likely to make entirely the wrong assumptions about the product in question (sometimes pushed in that direction by marketing efforts of food producers and packagers).

See for example this article by Leslie Samuelrich, which calls for clearer labelling of bottled water (and in particular labels that reveal when bottled water is in fact just plain ol’ tap water turned into a luxury good through the magic of good marketing): Bottlers need to label source of their water, tell truth

Why are such steps [honest labelling of water] so critically important to consumers?

For one, each year the bottled water industry reaps billions in profits, buoyed by marketing claims that differentiate what’s in the bottle from what comes from the tap (see Nestlé’s “Born Better” advertising campaign).

But as the Government Accountability Office found in a report last summer, bottled water is, in fact, much less regulated than our tap water. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their bottles….

As I said above, this kind of labelling requirement makes sense to me. But I wonder about the limits of labelling as a strategy. To begin, for any particular kind of labelling requirement, there are going to be questions about whether they are in fact informative (and especially about whether consumers will understand the information provided). But further problems arise given the proliferation of calls for labelling. It seems implausible to me that consumers are best served (or even well served) by a food label that bombards them with the information about 20 different value-laden characteristics. And surely there are far more than 20 different characteristics that someone or other might care about with regard to any given product.

Are there better ways of protecting consumers from bad choices, and promoting consumer autonomy? One option is to find various kinds of “meta-labels”, single descriptors that bundle together a ranger of characteristics. Brands are one way of doing that. So are well-recognized methods of agriculture, as represented by words such as “organic.”

So what do you think? Are there limits to the impulse to label things?

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.
This entry was posted in certifiction, consumerism, labeling. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Are Labels the Answer (to Everything)?

  1. Pingback: Does it Matter if Consumers Understand Food Labels? | The Food Ethics Blog

  2. Pingback: GM Foods and PLU Codes | The Food Ethics Blog

Comments are closed.