Inaccurate Product Labeling and the Bill to Remedy itAzia Weisz
A passionate fight for the rights of consumers has been ongoing for many years. It relates to the accuracy of the food labels on products. When food labels make misleading promises or do not give accurate information, they result in consumers making bad choices.
As with any other decision, a decision made with half the facts is a decision that has half a chance of being right. In the end, in accurate labels don’t help anybody in the supply chain. Consumers may be harmed, and manufacturers may face lawsuits.
The Accurate Labels Act
Lawmakers introduced The Accurate Labels Act in June 2018. It was the brainchild of U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan), U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill), and U.S. Representative Kurt Schrader (D-Ore). The bipartisan approach has lent even more credibility to the intentions of its proponents.
In a nutshell, the bill would ensure that consumers are given clear, truthful, and meaningful nutrition information on their food labels. The bill aims to prevent consumers from being misled by false information. It also aims to prevent unnecessary competition and skyrocketing prices.
The Accurate Labels Act would amend the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967. It would not affect the federal laws in place about nutrition guidelines, allergens present, and medication interactions. But it would enforce criteria based on scientific fact for any and all state and local labeling requirements.
SmartLabel would be used to collect labeling information. The information would have to be put on websites as well. 8 out of 10 Americans favor the idea of ‘smart labels’ to give customers product information through apps and websites. The product information manufacturers are expected to supply must be risk-based.
The Act sets out some precise criteria for consumer product labels. It includes listing the chemical composition of products as well as their radiation level. A fact-based scientific inquiry is necessary to determine the risk the product has of resulting in an injury or illness. Rep. Schrader says, “It’s time to bring science and reason back into the way we label products for the benefit of the American people.”
According to the proponents of the bill, state laws have left customers confused. Labeling requirements go beyond the national standard set out by the federal government. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) with the involvement of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and The Consumer Product Safety Commission administer these federal laws.
2018: A New Dawn
In 2018 alone, there were 30 proposals in 11 different states that mandated warnings and ingredient labeling go above and beyond the federal law. This is according to The Coalition for Accurate Product Labels. The coalition consists of 36 independent organizations, most notably the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association and The American Farm Bureau Federation.
The bill’s sponsors state that these unnecessary labels place a financial burden on the suppliers and manufacturers. They pass these extra costs on to consumers in price increases. They also open the suppliers and manufacturers up to the risk of frivolous lawsuits that can bankrupt them. It is not possible for them to put in every last trace element present in their product on the label. They may not even be aware of them. Or these trace amounts of substances may be present due to circumstances beyond their control.
The Coalition for Accurate Labels conducted its own survey about additional state and city regulations on labeling. 56% of respondents said that if states or cities want to amend the labeling requirements beyond federal level, sound science is essential. They want warnings to be put in place only if a legitimate risk can be scientifically established. Only 18% said that states and cities should be allowed to do as they please regarding labeling requirements. 15% said that states and cities should not be allowed to impose extra labeling requirements at all.
The sponsors of the bill believe that too many less obvious connections and warnings can lead consumers to miss the bigger picture. When the warning is unrelated to the real risk at hand, consumers become overwhelmed and ignore all the warnings. This is when the direct risk is ignored. They cite the example of the Californian proposition that mandates all coffee products be labels with a cancer warning. Their argument is that the real dangers get lost in among the plethora of warnings manufacturers must now stipulate.
Rep. Kinzinger says, “Often times, due to various state laws, items are incorrectly labeled with warnings about harms that do not exist. This inaccuracy creates confusion and fear for the consumers, desensitizes the public from heeding serious warnings on health risks, and imposes unnecessary and costly regulatory burdens for the producers.”
The differences between state requirements for labeling can hinder inter-state trade as well. Manufacturers want to have one standard label, not one for each state according to its own labeling regulations. This can place the growth of the nation’s economy at risk.
Another risk of differing state laws is the fact that producers and manufacturers may face fines if they don’t obey them. This affects the bottom line and the sustainability of the business. That is why a balance in the requirements for labeling is being sought.
Producers want to give consumers accurate and concise information. That’s why they are carefully watching the progress of this bill. If enacted, the bill negates the power of the state to impose its own labeling laws. Only what is required by the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act would be mandatory. If a state wanted to impose more regulations, it would have to provide science-based evidence of the need to add the label. It would have to make sure the product information and information about the risk was made available to consumers.
So far, manufacturers have embraced and endorsed the proposed act. President and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, Chuck Conner says, “State labeling requirements are confusing consumers and hurting farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses. The Accurate Labels Act is a win for anyone interested in accurate science-based product labeling.”