Soft Paternalism in the Supermarket Aisle

Very interesting. A grocery chain in New England has decided to reverse puff its products:

The chain, Hannaford Brothers, developed a system called Guiding Stars that rated the nutritional value of nearly all the food and drinks at its stores from zero to three stars. Of the 27,000 products that were plugged into Hannaford’s formula, 77 percent received no stars, including many, if not most, of the processed foods that advertise themselves as good for you.

I imagine that the chain thinks that it will sell more by encouraging a certain type of shopper (willing to trade money for virtue). It also is trying to fill an enforcement gap that currently bedevils certain academics:

The F.D.A., for its part, points to its specific requirements for foods that make health claims as well as their labels. It also acknowledges that its policing abilities go only so far.

“The thing is, a lot of claims we see out there are puffery,” said Joseph R. Baca, director of the office of compliance at the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “But they don’t get to the point where we can call them fake or misleading.”

Although Hannaford’s star ratings are posted on the same shelf tags that display prices, the chain has not changed the way it shelves products or markets them. This may have kept food manufacturers from rebelling, but it has not stopped them from questioning whether Hannaford is qualified to be the arbiter of healthiness.

“You end up with a lot of consumer confusion,” said Mr. Faulkner of Campbell Soup, which makes V8 as well as Healthy Request. “Do you defer to the Hannaford Brothers? The federal government?”

Faulkner has a point, of sorts. Hannaford is trying to patent its (opaque) ranking methodology, which suggests that it believes it can be exploited for commercial gain.

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3 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    Can this sort of a system create liability for the supermarket? For example, are they warranting the healthiness of the foods that they rate highly? To what extent can I rely on their statements?

  2. Sigivald says:

    I don’t think I’ll be paying much attention to “star” rankings of overall “healthiness”, with the methodology being unknown.

    Plus, CSPI is on the side of the star rankings, which in my experience might as well be an endorsement by Molotov and von Ribbentrop, so to speak.

    (Which nutritionists decided that salt was bad? What’s salt do to you that’s so bad unless you already have high blood pressure?

    I mean, salt-per-100 calories? And these people are supposed to be nutritionists?)

    I’d take the claim that they don’t want people to avoid no-star ratings more seriously if the ranking was 1-4, not 0-3.

    “No stars” and “One star” tell very different stories, psychologically – and the people that came up with this ranking system aren’t marketers or psychologists. (I mean, who came up with the display system, not the means of categorisation. The nutritionists can probably manage a 4-way division well enough, though I’m not sure they’re realistic about it. But how to show that 4-way division is not something nutritionists have any special qualifications for.)

    Maybe they had no intent to cause an avoidance of the lowest-ranked items, but they sure came up with a mechanism to produce it, anyway.

  3. Paul Gowder says:

    Wait, if they’re patenting it, don’t they have to disclose the method?