New Food Labeling Law

September 13, 2016
         ‘Victory wrapped inside a defeat’ ?


By Claire Davis, MA


In his recent op-ed “G.M.O. Labeling Law Could Stir a Revolution,” published in The New York Times, Mark Bittman criticized the new amendment to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 as “the weakest labeling law imaginable,” but went on to highlight a potential upside. Calling it a “victory wrapped inside a defeat,” he argued that increased access to information about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products will spur consumer interest in other aspects of food production.


Mr. Bittman named a variety of potential areas of interest, from the most rudimentary questions of where the ingredients in a food product were produced to more detailed ones, such as what pesticides remain on a food product, how much water is used to produce a crop, and whether farm laborers have health insurance. In Mr. Bittman’s vision, this “transparency revolution” will be a joint undertaking of consumers and industry producers, with consumers leading the call for change and companies providing detailed information directly on their packaging.


At Johns Hopkins University, we are developing a comprehensive labeling system to provide consumers with information about the ethical value of their food products. As part of the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program, the project, titled Consumers, Certifications and Labels: Ethically Benchmarking Food Systems, brings together scholars and experts from the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Berman Institute of Bioethics as well as several other participants from the US and Europe.


Alan Goldberg, PhD, principal investigator for the project, expressed his pleasure with Bittman’s call for a transparency revolution, saying, “We are working on exactly what Mark Bittman described. While consumers have begun to awaken to the health and ethical concerns of food production, they are still without standardized facts and guidance to make informed decisions, allowing opportunistic marketers and snake oil purveyors to sway their purchases.”


Dr. Goldberg believes that the lack of transparency and comprehensive standardization of packaging symbols in the food industry has left consumers confused. He says that a key to increasing transparency for more informed consumer decision-making is standardized labeling that addresses relevant values. For example, many consumers are familiar with the “USDA Organic” labeling and plan purchases accordingly.


The project is looking at the moral issues associated with environmental impact, food safety, occupational and community issues, public health and nutrition, and water utilization. In addition we will be evaluating existing certification marks and programs to incorporate into the database. The project aims to make information about the ethical value of food products easily accessible to consumers via a packaging label and mobile app. The resulting mark, web site and app will not only make it easier for consumers to make ethically-informed decisions about what they eat, but will also provide a template for industry to meet these standards.


Claire Davis, MA, is a staff research coordinator for the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

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