Misleading Food Labels
|April 2, 2012||Posted by Staff under Editorials|
Misleading Food Labels
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor, 2 April 2012
There needs to be a consistent rule of law for market transactions. The market law should either (1) state that all products are possibly dangerous, ineffective, and harmful unless the label states otherwise, or else, (2) that all products are safe, effective, and harmless unless the label states otherwise.
I personally prefer the second rule, but the important principle is to have one of these rules applied consistently. But such is not the case today. What we have today is constitutional chaos, where sometimes producers are required to disclose bad effects, and other times, products have undisclosed dangers.
For example, the U.S. government requires alcohol and tobacco products to have labels warning of their danger to health. But unhealthy meat is sold without any warnings. Cattle ingest hormones and antibiotics; they are fed grains and raised in cramped quarters. Nutrition science finds that such beef is more dangerous to health than pasture-raised grass-feed cattle.
Many beef consumers believe that factory farms are cruel to animals who are packed closely together, requiring antibiotics to prevent infections. To satisfy the demand for beef that has not been subjected to these conditions, the government has authorized the labeling of meat as “organic” and “free range.”
But such labels are deceptive. The organic label does not prevent growers from using mass production, such as housing cattle close together. Organic cattle may eat organic grains free of pesticides, but such foods are still not as healthy for them and for the beef consumers as eating grass, which is better digested. Grains raise the acid level of cattle, making them more vulnerable to infections as well as liver damage and other bad health effects.
Many consumers of chicken meat are opposed to the cruelty of keeping the animals cooped in small cages, so there is a market for chickens that were able to run around freely. But the free range label is also deceptive. In U.S. law, under the “free range” designation, it is sufficient for the chickens to have hypothetical access to the outdoors. There can be a doorway to a small outdoor area not used by most of the chickens.
There needs to be a legally-defined label “pasture raised” in addition to “organic.” These would be animals truly raised outdoors and free to move hither and thither. The designation “grass fed” would mean that most of the feeding was grass. Beef from cattle that are both pastured and grass-fed has less fat than factory-raised meat and higher levels of healthy acids such as omega-3. Meat and eggs from pastured chickens are also healthier than the products of factory farms.
Two of the elements of a consistent rule of transactions law would be health effects and animal welfare. Many national and local laws already penalize cruelty to animals, but these laws are applied inconsistently. Under option #2 that products are harmless unless otherwise stated, products would be free of excessive harm to animal as well as human life, and also not harmful to the natural ecology and environment, unless the label states that the cattle were raised in cramped conditions and contain unhealthy hormones and antibiotics. This message could be condensed into a symbol such as skull and crossbones.
Honest disclosure would shift demand to products that minimize harm and which provide greater health benefits. Where the effects are controversial and disputed, the label would say so, since consumers need to know that some research has found problems.
Markets are often criticized for ignoring damage to health and environments, but these are not truly free markets. Freedom stops at the limit of harm. There is a natural-law ethic inherent in a pure market. The pure market consists of voluntary human action, and so theft is outside the market. Theft includes fraud, and a pure market prevents fraud with a consistent law of the market, with one of the two options presented above. In my judgment, the best law is the second one, that products are safe and effective unless otherwise stated.
Government is not only inconsistent, but enables and subsidizes fraud with misleading labels such as “free range.” The purchase of goods is an implicit contract, and a genuine contract is among knowing and willing parties. Economists call it “asymmetric information” when one party such as the seller knows something important, while the buyer is ignorant, and is fooled into buying X when he really wants Y.
Government regulation has the pernicious effect of fooling people that products tend to be generally safe, effective, and produced with minimal harm, whereas in fact we live under the reign of constitutional chaos. Consumers should therefore be extra careful to become informed and avoid being fooled by the labels exploited by fraudulent enterprises and their governmental enablers. Sources of food information include the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Cornucopia Institute, and the Rodale Institute.
– Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2010 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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