Food Labeling Needs to be Addressed

Dieter Krieg
Published in Farmshine (December 7, 2007 issue)

On the one hand, I agree and support Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff’s efforts to clear some issues regarding the labels on dairy products.

On the other hand, I understand and sympathize with those who aren’t exactly thrilled with what he is attempting to do.

There are valid reasons and good arguments on both sides of this issue. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that something needs to be done about the way many foods are labeled today — not just dairy products.

Personally, I have a real problem with just about every catchy phrase that is designed to lure consumers — whether it’s toothpaste, a new car, or airline service. Overstating qualities is nothing new; it’s been going on for decades, if not centuries. And as I mentioned on this page a couple of weeks ago, it’s all about money.

Perhaps the problem has been around since man first learned how to write … or even speak. These days, phrases like “locally grown” and “environmentally friendly” and “raised organically” are common on food labels of all sorts. But what do they really mean?

Is “locally grown” from a farm within my township, or within the state? And how can I be sure?

Just what can I make of “environmentally friendly’? Where or at what point does such a condition begin and end?

The term “organic” is undoubtedly the most used, and also the one that I believe should have been struck down before it became so common and fashionable. Let’s get real, folks, there is no such thing as inorganic food. All food is organic.

But, granted, there is often a difference in how food is raised, whether its fruits, vegetables, cereal grains. dairy products; or any variety of meats, etc. Labels need to be very clear about that. Often times they’re not and consumers are either taken for a ride or at least left somewhat confused.

I met a fellow in Oregon this fall who told me of a farmer in his neck of the woods who had some real, genuine fun with this “organic” craze. Give the man an A+ for having stacked a pile of firewood at his place with a sign that read: “Organic Firewood.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he can’t keep enough in stock, because the poor consumer just doesn’t know any better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to knock the so-called “organic” market. There is a niche market for it; in fact it’s growing. And, yes, consumers have the right to have some say in how their food is raised or where it comes from. That can not and should not be denied.

For sure, if I was milking my own herd of cows and processing and selling the milk myself, I would consider it my right to include information on the label which might be of interest to the consumer. Including phrases like “Our cows are not treated with rBST.” But, of course, that information should not only be accurate, but also written so that it can’t be misinterpreted.

To place a label on a jug of milk that reads: “Free of antibiotics” is unnecessary because all milk is free of antibiotics, of course. Either we disallow such phrases or make it a part of every label to level the playing field.

As for the rBST argument, it appears that the industry is headed for a total ban of the product. If that’s indeed the case, everybody should be able to make the claim, “rBST free” or don’t mention it at all. The point is, level the playing field.

A year or so ago, producers were led to believe by their cooperatives and processors that consumers initiated the “preference” for milk from cows that aren’t treated with rBST. However, today we suspect that it was all an orchestrated plan by the big bottlers to grab a share of the so-called “organic” market. There’s money in it for them; it’s all about money.

And if that’s what the leader of the pack is doing, the smaller companies, such as Rutter’s, among many others, have little choice but to follow suit. Otherwise, they jeopardize their share of the market, to say the least. I think we should be able to understand that.

Nevertheless, labels — all labels — should be accurate and subject to verification, if at all possible. False claims or words that could be taken as an insinuation that “other milk” is inferior should not be allowed. State just the verifiable facts, please. Just the facts. It seems to me that we should be able to find a compromise in all of this.

The stickier issue is, of course, how to compensate producers for giving up use of a product that has enhanced their income. That’s what producers are concerned about and that, too, is understandable. It’s not likely though, that processors will want to split any of the extra profits that they’re making.

Good luck, trying. Your best bet there is exactly what Secretary Wolff is trying to do. Level the playing field by disallowing misleading or confusing labels.

It would seem, however, if rBST is indeed squeezed out of existence by direct pressures from processors and indirectly from cooperatives and consumers, then milk production should drop, should it not? And if it does — especially now that dairy products are in such high demand — then prices should rise accordingly, correct? In the long run, the market should straighten itself out.

For the time being, however, we continue to have a mess on our hands. A pandora’s box has been opened and we now have to deal with it. It’s not pleasant for anyone in the industry, including Secretary Wolff.

I’m convinced he meant well, but he might have used to broad of a broom to sweep this issue up for review. Speaking on Tuesday at the Lancaster DHIA banquet, Secretary Wolff explained that the real underlying problem in all of this is the public’s lack of knowledge about food and agriculture. He’s absolutely right. Actually, Secretary Wolff had that problem identified long before he came to work in Harrisburg. And I suppose you did too. And when you mix this lack of knowledge on the part of the consumer with the “wild wisdom” of activists, is it any wonder we’ve go problems in the marketplace? Secretary Wolff took on this monumental challenge within days of taking office. He wasted no time in launching initiatives that were designed to bridge the knowledge gap that exists between food producers and food consumers. He deserves credit for that, as well as our thanks.

Food producers are but a tiny minority in American society today. Yet, farmers are undeniably the world’s most important minority because they produce the stuff that nobody can live without. But the public doesn’t know it and that’s a real shame.

A final thought, just for fun. What do you think would happen if a major energy company like ExxonMobil, for example, decided to increase their already huge profits by very boldly and prominently advertising that all of their gasolines are lead-free? Sure, you and I know that all gasolines are lead-free. But does the average consumer? He/she might think that there’s actually a difference between unleaded and lead-free and pay the extra 50 cents per gallon! You know they would! Many consumers today are either too uneducated or too green or both! Heh, “green” can have two meanings here, can it not? We’ll just let it go for now.

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