Labels of the future

Will our food labels change soon?

By
October 18, 2012

California’s Proposition 37 — the initiative asking voters to decide, in November, whether they want genetically modified food sold in the state to be labeled as such — has attracted much campaigning on both sides of the issue.

A recent Reuters analysis noted that California voters are currently in favor of labeling their GM food, and that the issue — especially given recent studies linking consumption of GM foods to the growth of tumors and other health problems — has gone national, with the feds under pressure to hop on the labeling bandwagon, too.

Mark Bittman, meanwhile, would like to see better food labels, period. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he called for a simple new label design based on stoplights, with green, yellow, and red indicating a food’s relative healthfulness. (The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database already uses a similar concept.) Simple or not, Bittman is thinking broadly here:

Beyond honest and accurate nutrition and ingredient information, it would serve us well to know at a glance whether food contains trans fats; residues from hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or other chemicals; genetically modified ingredients; or indeed any ingredients not naturally occurring in the food. It would also be nice to be able to quickly discern how the production of the food affected the welfare of the workers and the animals involved and the environment. Even better, it could tell us about its carbon footprint and its origins.

Sounds complicated, but Bittman figures the traffic-light model could work, with three factors considered in evaluating a food product: nutrition, “foodness” (how close the product is to a whole food), and “welfare” (how the food’s production affected workers, animals, and the planet).

Wishful thinking? Well, Bittman notes, such a design almost came to pass in Britain recently, and is under review here.

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