An Update on Food Labels
I’ve gotten some on- and off-line comments about my federalism-in-food-labeling post from over the weekend. One reader points out that the market is already experimenting with food labeling, through chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, which negotiate with food manufacturers for certain production & labeling practices. Thus, if you want to do business with Whole Foods, you need to avoid a really long list of additives. Trader Joe’s, which acknowledges FDA preemption of food labeling here, is quite proud of its business of re-branding private label products so that consumers can be assured of quality and price guarantees. As the reader concluded, we can see the success of such stores as an expression of consumer demand for labeling. In reality, people don’t want to actually know what is in products, they want to know that food is safe, healthy, pro-environment, etc. When you buy at Whole Foods, you get the comfort of your convictions, without actually having to read the fine print: the store has done it for you. On this understanding, we don’t need states to experiment with label design or content: the market will sort out this problem nicely.
Another reader heatedly claims that I’ve underestimated the cost of labeling products for multiple states. So long as producers, and not distributors, do the labeling, it will be cost-prohibitive. My response to that argument is that current labeling practices are contingent on the FDA’s top-down command and control system. In a world with 50 different state practices, labeling would likely be done on-site through, say, the same type of sticker machine that currently set prices. The reader, in turn, maintains that the costs of labeling ought to considered in light of the negligible consumer benefits, and asserts that studies have found only 11% of supermarket consumers actually read labels before purchasing products. This number is debatable, of course. (A study here claims that 56% of subjects read labels some of the time). But the point that inconsistent labeling regimes would put severe burdens on smaller manufacturers obviously a good one, and would caution against allowing experimentation when the pro-consumer effects are as yet not quantified.