Food labels mislead consumers
Festival-goers in Canada recently got the opportunity to buy an innovative new health product: hot dog water. Boasting health benefits and claiming to be “keto compatible” and gluten-free, the water sold for $27 a bottle. The hot dog water turned out to be a joke by a performance artist but the artist earned about $1,500 from the stunt.
Hot dog water might seem completely absurd, but consumers encounter ridiculous labels and marketing gimmicks every time they hit the grocery store. Often, they shell out hard-earned dollars on the products bearing those labels believing they are receiving health benefits.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture works to complete federal guidelines for labeling foods produced with the help of bioengineering (or more commonly referred to as “GMO”), the market is already drenched with misleading non-GMO and GMO-free labels. Despite the scientific consensus that GMO crops are safe, some consumers are interested in that information. But products using a GMO-free or non-GMO label that can’t be produced with this technology are clearly an attempt to manipulate customers.
Take Ketel One vodka. Vodka is often made from wheat, which has no GMO version commercially available. (Monsanto created a GMO wheat but it was never brought to market so no one can grow it.) Yet Ketel One ran an entire ad campaign bragging about being 100% GMO free, as if this was something special that set them apart from competitors. The truth is that all wheat-based vodka, by default, is GMO free. Ketel One’s campaign was the equivalent of saying fresh water is free of sea salt.
Other marketing tricks can be slightly harder to decipher, even when the label is regulated by the federal government.
Federal regulations prohibit adding any hormones to pork or chicken. “Hormone-free” claims on these meats are required to subsequently state the rule. But no meat is hormone-free, because hormones are naturally produced by plants and animals.
Organic marketers often make claims about their products being raised without “toxic” pesticides. The Stonyfield Organic brand makes the claim that its products come without toxic pesticides. But all farmers (yes, even organic farmers) can and do use pesticides for pest control. As Jenna Gallegos explained in The Washington Post, "Pesticides fight bugs and weeds in organic and conventional fields. The difference is that organic pesticides cannot be synthesized artificially. This does not necessarily mean they are less toxic.”
Like many organic marketers, Stonyfield also tries to conflate the designation of organic with the concept of healthier, although research has shown there is no discernible nutritional difference between organic and conventionally-raised produce. Of course, the more labels like “natural” that can be added next to the USDA organic seal, the healthier it seems to consumers. But marketers are just creating confusion. The USDA organic seal is supposed to communicate that the product meets certain government criteria, but that message has become completely lost.
By far the worst offender of these marketing games is the Non-GMO Project. The label’s butterfly has popped up on products like Himalayan Pink Salt, blueberries and lettuce, none of which would ever contain GMO ingredients. The Project’s goal isn’t about educating consumers or giving people important information about the products they’re buying. To the contrary, as executive director Megan Westgate told the Wall Street Journal, the Project’s goal is “to shrink the market for existing GMO ingredients and prevent new commercial biotech crops.”
This is accomplished in one of two ways. First, the Project shares misleading and false information with consumers. It rates products according to how “high risk” they are of containing GMOs and says “most” GMO safety studies are funded by industry. But they fail to mention that there are literally hundreds of government-funded studies from around the world that overwhelmingly demonstrate their safety. Second, the Project pressures more and more food producers into paying them a fee for non-GMO certification. While there are fewer than 20 genetically-modified crops approved by the USDA for commercial cultivation (with eight produced widely), the Project happily leads consumers into believing anything without their label—regardless of whether it even has DNA—could be hiding GMOs.
Unfortunately, consumers are the losers of marketing gimmicks. While more and more shoppers are trying to make informed and smart decisions for themselves and their families, misleading labels make that increasingly difficult to do. The USDA should enforce its labeling guidelines, or expect to see a lot more keto-compatible, gluten-free hot dog water for sale.
Amanda Zaluckyj is a practicing attorney and farmer's daughter who shares her family's story at The Farmer's Daughter USA.