Wherever you look these days, it seems labels that strive to send a message about our food are on the table. In California, there's a vote coming up on whether genetically modified foods should be labeled. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission updated its guidelines for "green" labeling. And now The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has stepped into the fray with an op-ed outlining his suggestion for a multicolored, multicategory "dream" food label that aims to convey how healthful, natural and humane a food is.
No question, as consumers have become more interested in the back story of whatever they're tossing in the shopping cart, the proliferation of "pick me!" logos has become somewhat overwhelming. The international Ecolabel Index, for example, keeps tabs on no less than 432 marks administered by governments, nongovernmental organizations and industry alliances (and those are just "green" labels, having nothing to do with nutrition).
The Index's Anastasia O'Rourke says this sea of stylized leaves and bean sprouts is confusing not only to individual consumers but to major purchasers like universities trying hard to do the right thing.
Luckily for those of us who've experienced the tennis-spectator whiplash of too much time spent deciding between competing bags of do-gooder coffee, there's hope. O'Rourke can quickly tick off four major efforts working toward standardizing the whole labeling game. Some of the major players include the European Commission, United Nations and International Organization for Standardization.
OK, so hope, but maybe not of the fleet-footed variety. As the magazine Der Spiegel points out, past efforts to pare the list have been less than successful.
Nonetheless, a few individual countries have begun trying to sort things out for themselves. One of those is Denmark, where the government and Consumer Council are currently working out an agreement to analyze some of the most common ecolabels, with an eye for accuracy and areas of overlap. The goal is then to "weed out" some of the labels (to the extent that's legally possible) and suggest tools that could make life easier for shoppers.
One option might be a mobile phone app that scans product labels to provide even more information about a product's history, a la the GoodGuide. Another might be a take-along program alerting consumers to which ecolabels cover the issues that matter to them most. The Danish Competition and Consumer Authority already has a nifty prototype for that one on its website, where shoppers can check categories like "organic," "animal welfare" or "Fair Trade" and see which labels pop up — kind of an ecolabel Whac-A-Mole.
The tug of war between informing consumers and making them want to bury their heads in the sand is nothing new, says Jens Ring, who's with the European Commission in Copenhagen and has been working in the consumer affairs arena for years. "Before, it was discussion about whether the letters on labels should be 1 millimeter tall or less. There's always a trade-off. It's a constant discussion." And one that's not likely to be wrapping up soon.