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Label language continues to confuse consumers

I have always been curious about what goes through a person’s mind while shopping at the grocery store.

In the past couple of weeks, I have read several articles regarding consumer surveys, gauging consumer wants and purchasing habits when at the grocery store. I shared one such article in my weekly online newsletter titled, “Informed Consumers Won’t Pay More For ‘Natural’.” In this experiment researchers at Arizona State University polled 663 beef eaters about their willingness to pay for steak labeled with different attributes, one of which being natural. Half of the participants were provided with the definition of natural and half were not.

In summary, those who were provided the definition of “natural” were not willing to pay the extra price per pound for the natural label alone. However, those consumers who were not informed on the definition were willing to pay a premium for the product. This leads me to ask the following question: Are you an informed consumer?

In case it wasn’t clear, and often it’s not, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service considers all fresh meat “natural.” However, beef that carries a “natural” label cannot contain any artificial flavors, coloring, chemical preservatives or other artificial ingredients. Additionally, natural products must not be more than “minimally processed.” Ground beef falls under the minimally processed umbrella, so it can be labeled natural.

Label claims on food can be very confusing to consumers, and adding unnecessary information would only add to that confusion. Some additional label claims include: free range, pasture raised, antibiotic free, partially produced with genetic engineering and a whole list of others. While some of these statements accurately describe a product, they may also be misleading.

Research tends to show that many consumers are not always informed with regards to claims on food labels. Another study from Oklahoma State University polled 1,000 consumers, of which 8 of 10 supported mandatory labeling of DNA on food products. This one leaves me scratching my head. I understand that most consumers probably receive little gain from understanding genetics and DNA, but I would sure hope that they understand that the vast majority of food comes from living organisms. Somewhere along the line it appears those folks removed from science and agriculture have forgotten that very simple, but important concept.

Ilya Somin, in an editorial for the Washington Post, purposed the following label in the event that the government mandated a DNA label claim:

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

While I share this suggested label in good humor, it just goes to show the value of unbiased scientific research, which happens to be one of the guiding principles of the Extension system. Take some time to research some of the food labels of the various products that you purchase and become and informed consumer. There is a wealth of information on a food label, from nutrition, production practices, and marketing.

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