Food Labels Remain a Sticking Point

Food labels are like modern art installations. Everybody agrees they’re a good thing, nobody can decide what they should look like, and the average Joe can’t understand them.

Since 1990, when lawmakers mandated Nutrition Facts labels, brands and consumers have struggled to get on the same page.

Confused consumers

Earlier this year, consumer research firm Attest surveyed U.S. shoppers and found a pervasive misunderstanding about food labels. For example, only 9% correctly identified the most nutritious product among six snack bars. Another 13% managed to pick the least healthy option.

“The research is a call to action for the food and beverage industry to simplify how it sells its products,” Attest Founder and CEO Jeremy King told Food Business News. “This data shows that identifying real, healthy products appears to be a serious difficulty for American shoppers, as packaging messages simply aren’t accessible enough for consumers. With six in 10 consumers looking to buy healthy food and beverage products, addressing this issue will be of significant benefit to the industry.”

And while consumers want healthier products, a University of Minnesota study found a festering skepticism of labels. Only 24% of Americans “strongly trust” the labels they read.

Befuddled feds

It’s apparent – and annoying – that after more than 30 years of practice, brands still can’t communicate effectively with consumers. But it’s not like the feds have figured it out, either. This month, a U.S. District Court ruled against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to allow brands to label genetically engineered foods with just a QR code. The USDA must also include additional disclosure options under the agency’s Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.

“The court has now confirmed that the USDA acted unlawfully in allowing standalone QR code and other digital and electronic GMO labeling,” Center for Food Safety (CFS) Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell said. “This should be a warning to the industrial food sector that avoiding clear on-packaging labeling by using QR codes alone will not pass legal scrutiny. CFS will continue to work to ensure every American’s right to know what is in their food.”

The court decision added that “in mandating a study on the accessibility of the electronic disclosure and directing the USDA to act only if the electronic disclosure was determined to be inaccessible, Congress clearly intended for the USDA to provide ‘additional and comparable options’ to improve the accessibility of the electronic disclosure method.”

Food labels are not an American problem

Across the pond, retailers are dealing with labels of a different sort. In a loosely coordinated bid to cut back on food waste, at least half a dozen supermarket chains are ditching “best before” dates on hundreds of fresh food products.

Sainsbury, the United Kingdom’s second-largest supermarket chain, is the latest to start swapping out the labels. The prevailing argument, as articulated by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), “‘use by’ dates are linked to food safety, whereas ‘best before’ dates relate to food quality.”

“We know that around a third of all food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted,” Sainsbury Technical Director Kate Stein said. “We also know that by avoiding unnecessary waste, we can help our customers save money by making their food shop last longer.”

Food labels plague NPD

These are just a handful of challenges brands, regulators, and retailers face regarding food labels. Whether it’s nutrition facts, organic claims, or simple use by dates, labels represent a minefield for R&D departments.

But there is a way to avoid the traditional label claim pitfalls. Digital formulation and seamless cross-team collaboration can reduce risk exposure and accelerate R&D. Connecting digital formulas with your ingredient supply chain can make your brand more agile.

Check out our on-demand webinar with our in-house authority, Sara Jane Bellocchi. She discusses marketing claims and how you can integrate your process with our Networked Formula Management solution. TraceGains’ Ruben Galbraith also walked attendees through the Networked Formula Management experience.

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