Part of the debate I found intriguing was whether or not labels should be allowed that, while accurate, also stand a good chance of deceiving or confusing consumers.
Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was on the panel. She advocated for allowing any label that is accurate. She said if they want to be able to say their product is harvested only on Tuesday evenings under a full moon, for marketing purposes, they should be able to say that as long as it’s true.
Others argued against labels that, while accurate, are purposefully deceptive. “Hormone-free poultry” is the classic example. Since it is illegal to use hormones in U.S. poultry production, all fresh poultry is hormone-free. Yet, the label insinuates that perhaps the product’s competitors are not hormone-free.
“Trans fat-free blueberries” is another example. Think about that one for a minute. Then think again if you believe that everyone knows that no fresh blueberries contain trans fat. One farmer on the panel described having a class of students and their teacher visit his farm and it was the teacher who asked, “Now, we know the white eggs come from hens. Do the brown eggs come from roosters?”
Members of the food industry know that educating consumers is difficult. Is it ever ethical to confuse them on purpose? I have to disagree with former Deputy Secretary Merrigan on this one.
From a newsroom perspective, it’s not unlike the decisions we make in our news planning meetings every day about headlines. We want you to click on our headlines and read our stories. However, if we headline a story, “Fire breaks out in plant,” and the story ends up to be about a waste can fire in accounting that was put out in 30 seconds with a cup of coffee, we may have gotten your attention, but wouldn’t you think you had been duped? I think we’ve had plenty of examples of how badly consumers can react when they feel they have been duped about the food they eat. Think about it.
We resist the temptation to write accurate, yet misleading, headlines.
I actually wanted to weigh in on this question during the discussion but given that there were nine people on the panel, I had to pick and choose my battles.
I agree with both Merrigan and Gabbett (if that's possible). I'm with Merrigan in that companies should be allowed to add (or rather than governments shouldn't be permitted to prevent) any kind of label so long as it is truthful. Yet, I agree with Gabbett that truthful claims can sometimes be misleading. Perhaps ironically, however, I do not think such claims should be outlawed for precisely the reason Gabbett says she doesn't write misleading headlines (even though they are not illegal). Integrity.
Yes, a food company can probably get away with making a short term profit by fooling some consumers with misleading labels (a hideous and hilarious example is this package of non-GMO salt) . But, what happens when the truth comes out (as it eventually will) and consumers wise up or when 20/20, 60 minutes, et al. show up at your door pointing out your deception?
Labeling truthful but implicitly misleading claims is, to me, a sign of a lack of integrity. We can't legislate morality, and fortunately, the market will (eventually, though not as fast as we always like) damage the reputation and profits of those who act without integrity.
Gabbett doesn't print stories with misleading headlines, I suspect, because she believes the short-term benefits received do not outweigh the longer-term cost that misleading headlines would cause in terms of the lost trust of her readers. That doesn't mean some papers or web sites don't mislead; it also doesn't mean some food companies don't deceive. But rather than legislate against these activities, I'd rather we create a culture in which it is shameful to undertake such activities and in which consumers use their wallets to punish deception.