Harvard Food Law Society’s first Forum on Food Labeling was a smash hit. A shining example of collaboration, Harvard Law School along with Animal Welfare Approved, Let’s Talk About Food, Chefs Collaborative, and The Boston Globe produced a stellar line-up of speakers and panel sessions.
Over two days, we explored the tangled web of consumer, corporate, advocate and legal interests in food labeling. Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports – who delivered the simultaneously funny and startling From Fables to Labels at TEDx Manhattan last year – delivered the keynote address.
The man behind Food Day Michael Jacobson advised us to “think of a label as a battleground.” Companies affix terms like “healthy” and “natural” to their products and groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (which Jacobson leads) use legal means to pursue those they consider misleading.
According to Carter Dillard of Animal Legal Defense Fund, "If 15% of consumers surveyed take away that the conditions suggested are true, that's grounds for false advertising."
“Transparency is a necessary condition and value of a free market,” Dillard pointed out. Sadly, transparency is all too rare in our food supply chain. Dillard called labels "ads” that promise consumers certain qualities or conditions - and in many cases are accompanied by price premiums. Premiums paid and food consumed, on investigation, many of the promises fall flat.
The forum audience included students, faculty and staff members from Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, Bunker Hill Community College, Babson, Harvard and MIT. “There has been a sea change among students in terms of interest in food,” UCLA law professor Michael Roberts said.
This Examiner was particularly impressed by the degree to which speakers democratized language and clearly defined their terms. Only a few times did I get lost in the lawyer talk, and my confusion served as a reminder that when it comes to food systems we must listen hard and choose our words smartly so as to make room for all voices, perspectives and disciplines in the conversation.
In that spirit, here’s a short collection of new-to-me food label terms and fun facts:
- nutrition label - label making a health claim (highly regulated)
- attribute label - label making a production-practices claim - e.g. “natural,” “fresh,” “humane” (less regulated - growing in popularity)
- humane-washing - depictions either pictorial or linguistic of conditions drastically different from reality (e.g. cows on pasture or chickens in the yard when they're not)
- adulteration - tampering with the content and quality of food (e.g. recent horsemeat in UK scandal)
- Affidavit system – producer signs off on its own claims (i.e. self-made claims)
- Third-party verification system – an independent body inspects, reviews, and certifies producer claims
- Kosher - is among the fastest growing labels today
Harvard’s Forum on Food Labeling was at moments encouraging and at others infuriating. But at all times it was outstanding in design, content, diversity and energy.
This is one conference to watch.