Food Labels Lie

By Suzanne Lindgren

You’re at the store. It’s been a long day, but it’s almost over. You just need to track down some food that wasn’t grown in a chemical bath or harvested by exploited workers. Thank goodness for labels: fair trade, organic, natural, responsible. These things mean something, right? Well … sometimes.

Let’s start with the good news. Over the last few decades, consumers have become aware of corrupt practices in the food supply system and, in their effort to avoid supporting these practices, have fundamentally altered the marketplace. As of 2010, organic food was a $26.7 billion industry. In 2011, fair trade accounted for a lower but still significant share at $1.2 billion. Ethical marketing campaigns have proven so effective that major corporations want in on some of the profits. Such demand could have created a positive transformation in the food industry. Imagine a world where even the largest producers are committed to healthful food, sustainable practices, and fair wages.

However, rather than altering business models to create such a product, corporations are using the language of the natural food movement to mislead people into buying exactly what they’re trying to avoid. The recent controversy over Kashi cereals put a spotlight on the issue (thanks, EcoSalon). As a look through comments on Kashi’s website reveals, many customers felt a sense of betrayal upon learning that the Kellogg-owned company uses its natural-food image to sell products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) grown with pesticides. Buying safe, ethically-produced food is getting tricky, and cereal is just the beginning.

Officially, the “natural” label doesn’t mean much, though Californians are trying to change that. They’d like the term to designate foods free of GMOs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains that such labeling is unnecessary because GMOs are essentially like any other food. This stance is disingenuous, at best. Recent research indicates that gluten intolerance stems from wide use of genetically modified (and untested) wheat crops. Moreover, many GM crops are adapted for higher tolerance to pesticides. The issue, then, might be less with the crops themselves and more with what is being put on them. If you’re not sure which labels will steer you clear of pesticides, this guide to labels from Mother Jones offers a good starting point. But remember, the game is always changing.

Next, we will have to keep an eye on labels reading “responsible” and—possibly—“sustainable.” Writing for Dollars & Sense, John Latham reports that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other conservation groups have entered into a labeling compromise with the likes of Monsanto, Cargill, and BP. The deal is that if these producers follow a set of guidelines, the conservation groups will back labels reading “responsible.” However, the established guidelines offer too little improvement over current practices to have the intended effect of sustainability. According to Latham, the standards “are far lower than organic or fair-trade standards; for example, they don’t require crop rotation, or prohibit pesticides.” And although the WWF’s goal is to stop Big Ag’s destruction of the rainforest, the guidelines “would still allow 25 percent of the Brazilian soybean harvest to come from newly deforested land.” Latham quotes Claire Robinson of Earth Open Source, saying, “The [Roundtable on Responsible Soy] standard will not protect the forests and other sensitive ecosystems. Additionally, it greenwashes soy that’s genetically modified to survive being sprayed with quantities of herbicide that endanger human health and the environment.” Never mind responsible and sustainable — is it safe?

Questionable as the deal seems, it might be better than nothing. According to Monica Echeverria of WWF, “the certification program needs to set standards that a large proportion of stakeholders can subscribe to and then raise these standards over time. […] The main reason WWF participated […] was to address deforestation and its impacts on biodiversity and the people that depend on healthy forests for their livelihoods. Deforestation is not addressed by some of the other standards, including fair-trade and organic.”

It’s a good argument, but what about promoting companies that are truly sustainable and calling to boycott Monsanto, Cargill, and the others until they change their practices? Such a strategy was not even attempted before resorting to a compromise that, in the end, deceives consumers.

Perhaps the World Wildlife Fund is right and the guidelines will lead to sustainability over time. Meanwhile, it’s good to know that “responsible” foods are probably laden with chemicals and contributing to deforestation. If there’s anything to learn from the label debate, it’s that there are no easy answers. We have to do the research and decide for ourselves.

This post originally appeared on Utne Reader.

Related Stories:

FDA Denies Request to Rename High Fructose Corn Syrup

Food Labels Aren’t Accurate (And That’s Dangerous)

Food Labels Show Contempt for Consumers

Photo credit: libertygrace0


Silvestr Vetchinin

thank you

Care member
Care member3 years ago


Lynn D.
Lynn D.3 years ago

Very, very ture....thanks!

a             y m.
g d c.4 years ago

is it really lying???
or are they being creative and people are bot interpreting correctly???

Stanley Rampersad
Stanley Balgobin4 years ago

No Koch funded Monsant GM labels on food. GOP agenda to remove all regulations on FDA so Corporate profits can soar as more hormones, antibiotics,steroids,pesticides,herbicides,chemical fertilizers enter the food chain. RobMe/LyanRyan will deregulate everything in site and privatize everything they can. End of personal freedoms, individual liberties, Vote Obama and save our society from the Greedy, corrupt neo-con rabid ultra right wing crooks.

Dale Overall

Stricter labelling laws and enforcement always helps as many corporations will lie to make a profit and care little about the health of others when using deceptive practices.

Gluten D.
Gluten D.4 years ago

I wanted to say thanks for writing and posting the article. I found it to be well written and thought provoking. Thanks again and I will continue to follow your articles to see what else you write in the future.

Tanja Z.
Tanja Zilker4 years ago

thanks for info

Orange Blossom
Orange Blossom4 years ago

And this is news?!

Mary B.
Mary B.4 years ago

If lieing [as in misrepresenting, false advertizeing], deliberatly destroyiing environments where people still live a primative life, and useing known carcinogens on crops is known to be WRONG, if not outright illegal, why aren't the owners of these companies in prison, their assets seazed, with most of the money going to those most harmed, and some real teeth put in to standards to make sure this doesn't happen any more.We have known for a very long time that cutting any rainforest is desasterous , so why is it allowed? Or better yet, what would be a truely better, responsible and sustainable way to proceed? Lets get a clear vision out there into the future to pull us foreward.We already have several components lined up.