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Can Labeling Actually Harm Consumers?

That was the question asked in a recent study Stephan Marette and I just published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Industrial Organization.  The answer is "maybe."  

Traditional economic models assume that more information (as long as it is accurate) can only help consumers (so long as the cost of providing the information isn't higher than the benefit).  After all, if a consumer doesn't find the information useful, it can simply be ignored.  

But, this model assumes consumers are perfectly informed about all controversial issues they confront and that they can fully pay attention to all these competing issues.

What we show in our paper is that when consumers' attentions are limited (as they almost certainly are), that providing information (even if it is accurate) can - in some cases - actually make the consumer worse off.  How?  Because more information about one topic (like whether foods are made with genetically engineered ingredients) might distract consumers from paying attention from other important topics (like the number of carbs in the food) which has a bigger impact on long-term health.  

Here is the paper abstract:

Information and labeling are popular food policy instruments because of their presumed positive influence on consumer welfare. In a one-good case with unlimited attention, we show consumer welfare is always improved with the provision of accurate information. However, in a two-good case with limited attention, we show that consumer welfare is not always improved with the provision of accurate information. When attention is constrained, welfare may fall with information provision policies irrespective of their costs. The results suggest information and labeling polices may sometimes be counterproductive when attention is limited.