Truth in Labeling or True Lies?

Published on: 09:51AM Oct 22, 2010

There were a couple of interesting developments in recent weeks (which I’m finally getting around to blogging about) concerning dairy product labeling.  I’m not sure either one of them gets us closer to the truth, but they both illustrate how food product labels can be literally accurate, without actually telling consumers anything meaningful.

First, a federal appeals court decided on Sept. 30th that the state of Ohio cannot ban absence claims on milk products as they pertain to whether farmers have used recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) on their cows.  Ohio’s Department of Agriculture had in recent years created a regulation saying that since all milk contains hormones, and there is no significant difference in hormone levels in cows whether they’ve received rBST or not, processors shouldn’t be able to use a “not from cows treated with hormones” type of claim. 

But the appellate court ruled otherwise, asserting that consumer interests are served by such claims, regardless of whether regulators, at the state or federal level, can really vouch for whether there is a difference in the final product.  The case has been sent back to the district court level, and no one is really saying how this will all settle out in Ohio.  It’s the type of result that is not likely to change the “no hormones used” pledges that are ubiquitous on milk packages in other states.

What’s interesting is that since such labels are now prominent just about everywhere in the country, do consumers even care or notice?  Removing rBST from the fluid milk supply in the U.S. doesn’t appear to have helped overall consumption of milk.  And most of the consumer research I’ve seen indicates people still profess concerns about hormones in the milk supply, even though that concern supposedly has been addressed by these labels on all this rBST-free milk.  Perhaps ironically, the labels only have reinforced such concerns by raising and propagating the issue.  Food for thought.

In a related development just a day after the appeals court ruling in Ohio, Ben and Jerry’s said it was going to stop labeling its ice cream as “all natural.”  This, after consumer group CSPI pointed out that some common ingredients, like alkalized cocoa and hydrogenated soybean oils, aren’t really natural.

In B&J’s defense, the Food and Drug Administration has been struggling for years to come up with a finite, final description of what is natural.  As it stands, the term natural is so empty that it can often be applied to a whole range of foods, including, but not limited to, the likes of Chubby Hubby.

I’m a little surprised, then, that B&J’s rushed for the exits so quickly given that the FDA has hardly been clear about the matter.  I guess they’d rather switch than fight.  But the FDA hasn’t been exactly clear about a lot of these labeling issues, like the rBST thing, which as I said above has been a frustration for years, or the fight over whether soy “milk” is a truthful label claim (and kudos to comic strip Curtis for pointing out that there’s no such thing as a soy cow!).

What these examples illustrate is that regulators and marketers are bumping up against the limits of what can sensibly be said about food, where it comes from, how it was produced, and by whom….and ultimately, where any of those criteria amount to a hill of beans.  We have an obesity epidemic, a commendably safe (though certainly not infallible) food supply, and yet we run through all these confusing rabbit holes, where maybe the truth was once, but it’s not there now.