I recently expressed my doubts about the power of food labels to empower consumers across the full range of ethical issues related to food. But, at least implicitly, I accepted that nutrition labelling is the exception, the obviously-empowering form of labelling. But of course, even that is too optimistic.
Here’s the story, by Sarah Schmidt, for Postmedia News: Health Canada survey suggests nutrition labels confuse consumers
Consumers are utterly confused by the nutrition facts table on the back of prepackaged foods meant to help shoppers make healthier food choices, a new Health Canada survey has found.
The government introduced mandatory nutrition labelling rules for all prepackaged foods in 2003 so consumers could make informed food choices, but focus groups have delivered a blunt message to Health Canada and the food industry. In addition to “virtually ignoring all the information on the right-hand column” that details what percentage of a day’s worth of nutrients the serving provides, “consumers are also perplexed by information relating to serving sizes, which often don’t seem to be realistic….”
Now, the fact that nutrition labels don’t work well doesn’t mean we should do away with them. There are two reasons why not. First is this: the fact that current labels don’t do a good job of informing consumers doesn’t mean that labeling in general is useless. It might just be that we need new, innovative labels. The second reason is that consequences aren’t all that matter in the world. Sometimes we provide things not because of the good outcomes they’ll produce, but because they protect or advance some important right. Now, whether or not consumers have a right to nutritional information is not a straightforward thing to figure out. (Rights don’t just spring into being from nowhere; they have to be grounded in the need to protect some important interest.) We’ll leave that argument for another day. For now, it’s just worth pointing out that labels (and other mechanisms) can be valuable for those 2 different reasons: either because they promote some good outcome, or because they fulfill some right.