Taking a closer look at food labels Ridofranz/iStock/Thinkstock

Taking a closer look at food labels

New report from USDA digs into the issue of labeling, and what consumers perceive

What's in a label? Good question as USDA's Economic Research Service found out when it undertook a review of food labeling and the impact of Federal organic and nutrition labels. The final report is called Beyond Nutrition and Organic Labels - 30 Years of Experience with Intervening in Food Labels.

Food labeling is a challenging issue. Consumers tend to trust those labels approved by the government because they come with a specific set of standards. For example, the Certified Organic label from USDA did provide consistency in labeling. Yet ERS found consumers couldn't always see the difference between Certified Organic and "natural" or some other near-organic claim.

While the USDA Certified Organic seal includes a number of restrictions food companies make, consumers don't always know the difference between that familiar green label and another that says "natural" or "non-GMO" or "raised without antibiotics."

In the 97-page report, ERS included five case studies from the past 30 years that highlight the role of the government in food labels, and the informational strengths and weaknesses of various labels.

In the report, ERS found that the Federally approved labels did create credibility with consumers, but using the federal label development process was time-consuming, and can last several years. That's a challenge in a food market where consumer tastes change much faster, which necessitates those private labels that consumers see. There's also concern that some government standards for labeling may be too strict and discourage innovation.

A good example of confusion over labels is the "raised without antibiotics" claim. First used in the private sector, the claim had various meanings. There was no national standard to the claim, which created market confusion. USDA approval of RWA claims gave credibility to competing labels, yet ERS found that private firms independently defined what the claim meant; the new label has not assured that consumers understood differences in product.

The agency acknowledges that label changes did not ensure that consumers understood the differences in products.

The world of food labeling can be convoluted and confusing. This new report offers readers a chance to dig into the topic to learn more. For farmers, food labels like RWA can offer market potential at a lower cost of entry than going fully organic. Check out the full report by visiting the Economic Research Service where you can access the free report.

Source: USDA Economic Research Service

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