FDA Should Curb Misleading Food Labels

If you’ve made a grocery run at any point in the last few months, you may have noticed the proliferation of labels on your favorite products:

All natural! Non-GMO! Organic! Gluten-free! No MSG! Cruelty-free!

I’m surprised they still find room on the packaging to name the product. Many people don’t realize that all these labels aren’t actually there to inform consumers — many of them are actually misleading us and harming farmers in the process.

I’m the daughter of a farmer and immensely proud of the food my family grows. I started writing about my family’s farm and production choices to put a face on modern agriculture. Unwittingly, I’ve become something of a warrior against misleading and downright false labeling gimmicks for food.

The two issues are more related than you might imagine at first glance. The food we grow on our farm is subject to a bunch of those labels I mentioned. The problem has become so acute that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is asking for input from various stakeholders on how to reshape food labeling in this country. Gottlieb has been extremely receptive to the growing complaints about how the nation’s food labels serve to confuse consumers. The FDA’s development of a Nutrition Innovation Strategy gives me hope that we could finally see some changes.

Commissioner Gottlieb, as a farmer’s daughter and a consumer, here are my suggestions.

I want to see an end to the disparaging and slanderous comments from the organic industry. We regularly see organic marketers employ gimmicks meant to scare consumers away from conventionally produced options. Often organic foods are sold with the falsehood that they’re more nutritious than their conventionally raised counterparts, or grown without the use of “toxic pesticides.” In fact, there is little to no nutritional difference between the two farming methods. And organic farmers can and do use pesticides too.

These marketing tricks hurt consumers and destroy trust in our food system. Unfortunately, the message disproportionately hurts low-income shoppers. Parents trying to make good food choices at the grocery store can’t always afford the higher-cost organic label. But instead of purchasing the more affordable conventional option, these parents usually forgo buying fresh produce completely. Their families miss out on a safe and nutritious alternative as a result.

I also want to see a commitment to honesty and truth in our nutrition labeling. The most egregious offender of this principle has come from the use of non-GMO labels. Genetically modified foods come in a variety of forms, such as apples that don’t brown when you cut them. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that these crops are safe for human consumption and not substantially different from their counterparts.

But there are only about a dozen crops currently used that have been modified using modern techniques. You wouldn’t know that just by walking the aisles of a grocery store though. The shelves are lined with products proudly bearing a non-GMO label. The problem is that most of these products such as 100 percent pure orange juicedon’t have a genetically modified counterpart. (Although we certainly need one given the depredations of the citrus greening disease in Florida.) Some, such as salt, don’t even have DNA. So, Commissioner Gottlieb, why do we allow these products to carry the non-GMO label? That’s dishonest, at best. At worst, it’s a cynical attempt by groups like the Non-GMO Project to make consumers afraid of GMOs and to pressure food makers and growers not to use the technology — all so that it will be less available. 

The overall result is that consumers are misled about the food raised on family farms across our nation, which is nutritious and safe. All farmers make the best decisions for their own unique farms considering the environment, the bottom line, and the end consumer. I want to see marketing that celebrates the diversity of our food system, the thousands of choices available to us, and the overall safety of our food.

Once we’ve established that, we can start to focus on the consumer choices that really matter. Instead of selling us the latest fad, our nutrition labels should aid shoppers in eating balanced and well-rounded meals. FDA’s labeling guidance can help Americans make food choices based on scientifically sound nutrition advice.

Amanda Zaluckyj is a practicing attorney and farmer's daughter who shares her familys story at The Farmer’s Daughter USA.

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