Food Labels May Not Be What They Seem

Buying produce from farmer’s market, like this one in downtown Minneapolis, allows consumers to talk to the local farmers who produce their food.

Grace Palmer

Buying produce from farmer’s market, like this one in downtown Minneapolis, allows consumers to talk to the local farmers who produce their food.

Grace Palmer, Opinions Editor

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Many companies use buzzwords to cash in on trends and increase profit margins. This can seem harmless, even inevitable, but manipulating certain trends hurts both consumers and international food producers.

Phrases like “fairly traded” and “all natural ingredients” have no legal standards. This is in contrast to “certified organic” or “certified fair trade” accompanied by the official USDA or Fair Trade USA labels, respectively. The USDA standards for other phrases are misleading, as they are not what consumers would expect. “Made with organic ingredients” only requires 70% organic ingredients, with the three main ingredients listed. This leaves room for preservatives and other things that buyers would not expect in an organic product. A product can be labeled in any way, whether that’s as if it is organic or fair trade, as long as the certification labels are not used.

As awareness of environmental and human rights concerns associated with food production rises, customers often look for ways to reduce harms to themselves and the world around them. This makes related buzzwords more appealing to producers. Consumers need to be increasingly cognizant of marketing practices, as this is severely problematic.

Marketing techniques like these actually hurt the causes that they would seem to promote. If something seems fair trade, but does not have the additional costs associated with actual fair trade practices, it will be chosen over genuine fair trade products. The same is true for organic foods and other products. This cuts into profits that organic or fairtrade farmers and producers would otherwise receive, and is harmful to small companies who focus their businesses on fairtrade or organic. It also makes true fair trade appear to be less profitable to bigger corporations. These corporations will choose not to invest in positive practices, such as organic farming or fair trade. Instead, these big businesses may choose to use less than honest labels as well. This creates a self perpetuating spiral of buzzwords.This blatant manipulation of consumers, making it seem as if buying a product is helping a cause when it is actually doing harm, makes this practice morally repugnant.

Consumer education and awareness is key to quashing this practice. If shoppers are more critical and demand producer honesty it will become a greater profit risk for companies to use this marketing technique. At farmer’s markets, buyers can even ask the producer themselves any questions about their food.

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